Researcher shines light on Tennessee representative's overlooked role in ratifying 19th Amendment
Growing up, I was always told by my grandmother that, her uncle, Rep. Banks Turner of Gibson County, Tennessee, was responsible for the vote for women's suffrage - ultimately ratifying the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Banks and his wife, Ivie, had no children, thus my grandmother was like a daughter to them. Banks died long before I was born, but Aunt Ivie was a fixture in my childhood, living until I was 10.
Though many publications this year are finally giving Banks Turner his due (I'll post some of those at the bottom), one man, Don Enss, a researcher at Middle Tennessee State University, has made it his personal mission to ensure that Banks' legacy is fully understood. My family and I are grateful for Don's efforts - and his enthusiasm. Don even made a banner to honor Banks, and placed it in his front yard.
The rest of this post is a submission that Don made to Tennessee newspapers just in time to celebrate the centennial of the amendment that gave women in the United States the right to vote. - MKH
By DON ENSS
Citizens of Gibson County, the State of Tennessee, and the United States should
acknowledge and honor the role of Rep. Banks P. Turner, Gibson County’s native son,
when he cast three crucial votes on August 18, 1920. Those votes cast in the
legislature’s special session affected the outcome of the ratification of the Nineteenth
Amendment, which ended the long struggle of women across our state and nation to
win the right to vote.
This year as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification, let’s give him
the long overdue credit he deserves. His role was overshadowed by Harry Burn, a
representative from Niota in East Tennessee, who voted for the Amendment and gave
as one of his reasons a letter he had received from his mother urging him to vote for it. I
am glad he did, but here is the rest of story.
After months of campaigning by both sides – Suffragists and Anti-suffragists, it
came down to one day – August 18, 1920. Rep. Joe Hanover, an Independent from
Memphis, served as the floor leader and fought valiantly to keep the pro-suffrage votes
together. He knew going into session that day he was two votes short. Seth Walker, the
Speaker of the House, believed that he had the votes to defeat the Amendment. To
provide cover for those who might be on the fence and did not want to anger their
constituents by voting for or against it, he gave them a way out. He introduced a motion
to table the state Senate’s resolution, which had ratified the Amendment 25-4 and sent
to the House. The roll call of representatives began and Harry Burn was #7. He voted to
table the Senate’s resolution. This is critical because if the motion to table succeeded,
there would be no vote on the Amendment. Any decision on the Amendment would
have been delayed to regular session in January 1921, after the presidential election.
The roll call continued with members in the gallery and probably on the legislative
floor checking off names of representatives on their tally sheets as they registered their
decision with the clerk. The clerk called Turner and he responded “Pass.” Suddenly,
everyone in the legislature was caught in the moment – a sense something historic was
about to happen. The remaining representatives’ names were called and the vote stood
48 for tabling, 47 against tabling. This was the “carpe diem” moment. People in the
gallery leaned forward, members on the floor gave their full attention to Turner – all
eyes and ears were on him. Before the clerk recorded the final tally, Turner uttered
these historic words – “I wish to be recorded as against the motion to table.” It took a
few moments to register and then pandemonium broke out as everyone realized that
Turner’s vote had created a tie. There was yelling and screaming and chaos on the
floor. There were demands for a recount. The Anti-suffragists were stunned. Turner had
kept hope alive for the Suffragists.
Once order was restored, the recount was conducted. Burn again voted in
support of tabling the resolution. Turner was under great pressure from his good friend,
Speaker Walker, to change his vote to support tabling. Walker had his arm on Turner’s
shoulder and pleaded with him. Neither ever mentioned what was said, what was
offered, or promised, if anything, but, finally, Turner stood up and threw Walker’s arm off
and voted “No.”
A frustrated and angry Walker then decided to force a vote on the original motion
to concur with the Senate resolution to ratify the Amendment. He called for a vote on the motion and this time just like with the two earlier votes, Burn voted seventh and this
time he voted “Aye.” This caught everyone’s attention because if the rest of the
representatives voted as they had against tabling, then there would be enough votes to
ratify the Amendment. However, there were eighty-nine votes to go.
The clerk continued the roll call. When Turner’s name was called, he passed.
What was going on? This became the second “carpe diem” moment. After all votes had
been recorded, Turner in a dramatic flourish rose and it is easy to imagine the silence in
the legislature with everyone leaning forward straining to hear what his decision was.
Within the span of a couple of hours he was about to make history twice – first by
keeping hope alive and now – “I wish to be recorded as Aye,” he said in a
With that vote, he ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. Speaker Walker quickly
changed his “No” vote to “Yes” so he could bring the legislation back up for a vote within
three days in the hopes of changing a legislator’s mind – he failed and on August 26,
1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially make it part of the U.S. Constitution.
As we celebrate this significant event in our history, it is important to remember
that there were twenty-five state Senators, Democrats and Republicans who voted for
suffrage. There were forty-nine representatives - Democrats and Republicans, including
Harry Burn, a Republican from McMinn County; Banks Turner, a Democrat from Gibson
County; and Independent Joe Hanover from Memphis who voted for the Amendment.
All of their votes were equally important and they all deserve our appreciation and
gratitude for their votes, but it was Banks Turner whose unexpected three votes carried
the day and put it over the top.
Aunt Ivie and me, c. 1985