Women’s Suffrage & Niota, Tennessee

By Alayna Smith, Intern, Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association

Niota, Tennessee, is a small tight-knit community of only 722 people. Almost every city in America has their own claim-to-fame – for Niota, it happens to be playing a pivotal role in the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in August 1920.

This seems like quite a statement. So, how did they do it?
I wasn’t sure. So I decided to check out the story myself.
Through the hills of Tennessee I traveled.

Upon arriving to Niota City Hall, I discovered something unexpected – a full-size stationary train car next to the building.

After I spoke with a staff member there, the reasoning became apparent. The building, constructed in 1853, once served as a train depot for cross-country travel. It is now the oldest remaining pre-Civil War depot in Tennessee. The bright red train car stands to commemorate and celebrate this history.

I got a personal tour of the building. Walking around, I could feel history come to life. The depot withstood wars and has bullet hole scars to prove it. Since the 1900s, electricity and running water have been added to the building, but the original wooden pillars still support its ceiling and roof.

Inside, there is an old-fashioned safe, art celebrating the historic name of the station (Mouse Creek), and two different holding rooms for passengers (one was for African Americans and one was for Caucasians). Inside the four walls of the depot I saw quite a few references to the 19th Amendment. I was interested to learn more.

The depot represents the excitement behind brand new 20th century mass transportation, the shameful segregation that was going on at the time, and the suffrage dialogue that was taking place among political states of influence.

I asked my guide why there were so many suffrage references sketched into the framework of the wood. He explained that in August 1920, the country was divided about passage of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote. The debate was settled after a last-minute change of heart by a state representative from Niota, Harry Burn. A Republican anti-suffragist, Burn changed his vote in support of ratification due to a letter he received from his mother encouraging him to do so. Tennessee provided the 36th and final state vote needed to ratify this landmark amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Niota holds such abundant history in such a small city. If you would like to learn more or visit these landmarks yourself, you can find all of the addresses below. Although Harry’s Estate is now privately owned, Mr. Rutledge (current estate owner) has invited anyone to drop by at any time.

Burn (Rutledge) Estate: 818 East Farrell Street, Niota TN 37826

Final Burn resting place: Niota Cemetery, Niota, TN 37826

City Hall/Oldest Depot: 201 Main St, Niota, TN 37826

Click here to watch a video about the dramatic events leading up to and following the final vote.

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