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How a historic Nashville hotel played a key role in women's suffrage

Nashville, Tennessee has a historic connection to the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. Special correspondent Cat Wise visited the Hermitage Hotel, built in 1910 just steps from the state Capitol, where a hard-fought battle for that right was staged.

WATCH: By One Vote: Woman Suffrage in the South | Nashville Public Television


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Nashville, Tennessee is known as America's Music City where country hits are recorded and fans feel like to hear their favorite singers, less known is the city's connection to the 19th amendment which legally granted women the right to vote back in 1920.
Special Correspondent Cat Wise visited an historic hotel in Nashville where a hard fought battle for that right was waged.
Cat Wise: Nashville's Hermitage Hotel completed in 1910 just steps from the state capitol has been a favorite gathering spot over the years for locals, politicians and celebrities, including Amelia Earhart and Elvis Presley. But the hotel is cemented in history because of a group of women who helped change civil rights in America more than 100 years ago.
What would we have seen here in the lobby in the summer of 1920?
Carole Bucy: We would have seen women in white dresses. It was summertime and summertime in Tennessee is hot.
Cat Wise: Local historian Carol Busey says in 1920, it became clear Tennessee was going to be the final state needed to ratify the 19th amendment. That summer, local and national suffrage leaders as well as anti-suffragists converged on Nashville.
Carole Bucy: The lobby of the Hermitage Hotel, in some ways is a character in the story because it gets prominent. This is where all the deals were made. This was the scene of the action.
Cat Wise: It became known as the War of the Roses from a suite on the third floor suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt advocated for the right to vote wearing yellow roses, and on the eighth floor those who opposed suffrage, including Tennessee native Josephine Pearson wore red roses.
This documentary from Nashville Public Television highlights the tension in the hotel that summer.
Abby Crawford Milton, President of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Association: We go up and down on the elevator and best friends wouldn't speak to each other. It was such an heated campaign. The Heritage Hotel, as I told you, was the scene of many first fights.
Cat Wise: Busey says the work done by so many women to earn the right to vote from the Seneca Falls convention to the fight at the Hermitage Hotel has often been overlooked or forgotten in history.
Carole Bucy: There was no awareness whatsoever of any of the things of related to woman suffrage. In fact, until the 60s, there was really no such subject as women's history offered in colleges undergraduate or graduate level.
Cat Wise: The Hermitage Hotel's own history was also lost for a time. During the 1960s and 70s The building fell into disrepair and was closed. Local preservationist saved it and the hotel underwent major restorations in the early 1980s and 2000s.
In 2020 the hotel was named a National Historic Landmark and another major remodel began. Today, the luxury hotel commemorates its suffrage history in both subtle and obvious ways. What happened here? Dee Patel manages the hotel, the first woman to do so.
Dee Patel, Managing Director, The Hermitage Hotel: So the eighth floor was a floor in which the anti-suffragists would bring up legislators to sway their votes, because they've noticed that they were wearing the yellow rose or perhaps if they weren't wearing the yellow rose, would bring them up to the eighth floor and get them drunk off of Jack Daniels whiskey.
Cat Wise: Today, Room 812, the infamous Jack Daniels suite looks quite a bit different than a 1920. But the remain glimpses of its past
Dee Patel: And Dallas Dudley is depicted here and you see the roses that are a nod to the history. And so throughout the guestrooms, and throughout this particular suite, you will notice artifacts and ways in which we've been able to celebrate and cherish and respect history.
Cat Wise: Like this piece of art, paper cut resembled the bottom of whiskey glass, and a bird breaking through a paper bag and Carrie Chapman cats form a room overlooking the Capitol building. The hotel also honors it's passed through tea. A suffrage themed tea service is offered several times a week, Patel and I shared a cup on the mezzanine.
Dee Patel: Afternoon tea was enjoyed often as women gathered and it was those gathering moments in which the organization of the suffrage movement began in Seneca Falls.
Cat Wise: But in the end, it was men who determined the fate of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920.
Tom Vickstrom, Historian and Director of Finance, The Hermitage Hotel: Here we have a picture of Harry T. Byrne who was the youngest legislator at the time, and he cast the deciding vote.
Cat Wise: Tom Vickstrom, the Hermitage's historian explained Burns role in the historic vote.
Tom Vickstrom: He had received a letter from his mother that very morning, encouraging him to do the right thing. And he did -- he had a red rose on his lapel meaning he was going to vote against it he was deadlocked with a 48-48 tie, and he changed his vote to yes.
Cat Wise: The final vote tally was 50 to 46 in favor of ratification.
Carole Bucy: There was pure pandemonium. The suffragists are crying and hugging each other. The rose petals were everywhere.
Cat Wise: Despite the victory that day, many women especially black women, continue to face discriminatory voting laws for decades.
Carole Bucy: That they end of the day in 1920, men in this hotel in the General Assembly, were taking votes about women's rights. They were making the decisions for women and about women. And we are still in the throes of that very same debate today.
Cat Wise: For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Cat Wise in Nashville, Tennessee.
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