Pandemic Pivot Allows Nashville Public Library To Expand Access to Votes for Women Exhibit

In 2020, the Nashville Public Library (NPL) looked to expand its Civil Right Center with a new Votes For Women room. After 18 months of planning, the grand opening was scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which cleared the way for women to vote. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, the NPL realized that the grand celebrations envisioned would not be possible.

In 2020, Nashville Public Library (NPL) looked to expand its Civil Right Center with a new Votes For Women room. After 18 months of planning, the grand opening was scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which cleared the way for women to vote, though many barriers continued to thwart women of color in exercising their franchise. Georgia gubernatorial candidate and founder of Fair Count and Fair Fight Stacey Abrams toured the space during her February visit, and TV journalist Cokie Roberts had agreed to participate in the opening celebration before her untimely death last fall.

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, NPL realized that the grand celebrations envisioned would not be possible. Immediately, the staff shifted their energies toward a Virtual Opening, realizing that moving the event online would allow visitors from across the state (and beyond) to join the conversation. On August 18, though the doors to the building were not open, the Votes for Women Center launched, ready to serve those in Nashville and around the world.

HISTORY

Historic photo of outdoor rally national woman's partyNashville played a key role in the ratification of the 19th amendment. Passed by Congress in June 1919, states began the full ratification process soon after. Its progress stalled in March 1920 after Washington, state 35 of the required 36, passed the measure. For months, the remaining states faced pressure and controversy swirled over whether to convene a special session. Most southern states had already rejected the amendment by the time Tennessee’s governor called for such a session, and for a few weeks in August 1920, the nation’s suffrage movement descended upon Nashville. On August 18 the Tennessee state legislature approved the measure, and all over the country, bells were rung to celebrate the passage of this historic act. But the bells in Nashville stayed silent. The people of Nashville saw the amendment as too controversial to be celebrated.

PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT

architect's rough sketch of new Vote For Women centerKnowing Nashville’s role in this transformative moment, a trio of friends approached NPL with a proposal. Margaret Behm, Juli Mosley, and Jeanie Nelson had long been supporters of the library’s work and envisioned a unique exhibit and research center devoted to the suffrage movement and the events surrounding ratification. In an interview, Nelson explains, “We started talking about the fact that so many women’s stories are just not told. Our history is often written by others, and oral histories are not captured.” For almost two years, they worked with NPL to make sure the stories of the suffrage movement would be heard.

Like the Civil Rights Center it joins, it would serve as a research facility, archive, and teaching opportunity for all ages. It would interrogate Nashville’s history of racist and obstructionist policies and highlight how many suffragists and politicians on both sides of the issue were driven by racist views. The collection must acknowledge the failures and successes of the past while addressing the ongoing issues surrounding race and disenfranchisement. Aiming to be a living movement, the exhibit would take visitors from the past to the present and into the future, making space for what Civil Rights Room Director Andrea Blackman calls “rights won but not done.” NPL Director Kent Oliver agreed, arguing that “asking tough questions of history and America is what libraries should be about.”

Over the course of 18 months, Behm, Nelson, and Mosley worked with the Nashville Public Library Foundation to raise private funds for construction of the space. Meanwhile, the Special Collections staff, led by Andrea Blackman, worked to develop the collection and the programming around it. The library also partnered with Rebecca Price, Nashville resident and founder of Chick History, a nonprofit organization devoted to “rebuilding history one story at a time” with a focus on educational programming and community outreach. From the beginning, the team saw the space as a chance for historians, library supporters, and library staff to collaborate.

One monumental task was selecting the quotations for the expansive “halo” designed to hang from the ceiling and encircle the space. This striking element is a visual hallmark, representing the purpose and mission of the center. To begin, the team assembled a large group of stakeholders and asked each participant for ten quotes from notable women throughout history. This first step resulted in seventeen pages of material. From there, the entire NPL team worked to narrow that list, each choosing their top 10 and justifying their choices. The team then narrowed the list to twenty-five, with the final list chosen by Blackman, Price, and Tasneem Grace (NPL Special Collections staff). Some well-known figures in the suffrage movement are represented, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but it was important that the voices reflect a broad array of views and experiences, and the words of Septima Poinsette Clark and Shirley Chisholm were also among the final selections.

PANDEMIC PIVOT

Once NPL staff realized the opening would have to be virtual, they moved to widen their reach. In midsummer, they launched the #IRingtheBell campaign, inviting participants to upload videos to social media. From the mayor of Nashville to Rosanne Cash, people all over Tennessee (and beyond) rang bells and shared why. In addition, NPL built out its website to include a landing page for the soon-to-open space, including a digital gallery of political cartoons from the era. The city of Nashville also moved its celebrations online, including a Zoom event sponsored by the Tennessee Performing Arts Center with artist Marilyn Artus, creator of Her Flag: A Suffrage Celebration. Before the pandemic hit, Artus invited artists from each of the ratifying states to create a stripe representing the local history and landscape. Over the last several months, Artus has criss-crossed the country, following the path of ratification, to sew each stripe into a large flag, and Nashville was her final stop. Blackman and Price spoke on the panel for this event immediately preceding the virtual opening of the NPL exhibit.

VIRTUAL CELEBRATION

At midday on August 18, the Votes For Women: Legacy of the 19th Amendment exhibit and research center celebrated its grand opening with a video montage. Nashville Youth Poet Laureate Alora Young performed a spoken word poem to launch the event. The montage went on to show highlights of the space, including high-touch elements such as the circular debate table and voting booth elements. It also gave voice to the original visionaries of the project, local leaders and celebrities (including Cash), and historians.

LOOKING FORWARD

If it weren’t for the pandemic, the Votes for Women room would be hosting countless class trips, university students, and researchers this fall. Until that is safe, the staff has created digital curricula such as educational toolkits for Metro Nashville Public Schools as well as ongoing virtual programming. With the shift to virtual programming, library leadership believes they can still fulfill their commitment to the active engagement of every learner and possibly extend access to classrooms around the state.

The invitation to join the #IRingtheBell campaign reads, “We want to be loud, and we want this act of community and solidarity to spark a conversation about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go” in what Blackman calls “one big continuing conversation as to our own personal responsibility for human rights.”

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