By Elisha Hodge, MTAS
Every year, during the month of March, we recognize the unparalleled obstacles that women have overcome and celebrate the game changing contributions made by women in this country and around the globe. During this past year of turmoil and uncertainty, women led the dialogue and the marches for social justice, led the teams racing to find a cure for COVID-19, and led at the polls with more women than ever before being elected to Congress. And while we celebrate all the gains being made by women, we must always remember those individuals who paved the way.
How many of you all are familiar with the name Agnes Sadler? Hopefully many of you are, but the reality is that you probably are not. I had never heard that name until about 3 weeks ago when a colleague shared an article with me from the Knox News Sentinel. The article featured Terry Caruthers describing the fictional children’s book she wrote called The Big Day, in which a young Black child describes the day she goes on a life changing adventure with her grandmother, who happens to be going to cast the first vote in Knoxville by a Black woman. It was through that article that I was introduced to Agnes Sadler, the main character in the book. However, it was through a subsequent conversation with . Caruthers that I learned about the real Agnes Sadler, wife, mother, and domestic laborer, whose bravery and determination paved the way for all women of color who vote in Knoxville today.
About 5 years ago, Caruthers began going through old newspaper articles from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as part of a preservation project she undertook as special projects librarian working on the Calvin C. McClung Historical Collection. As she began going through the newspaper articles from July -December 1919, she says that she was surprised when she came across several articles about the suffrage efforts in Knoxville. While the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was not ratified until August 18, 1920, women in Tennessee, due to an act of the legislature, had enjoyed the right to vote in presidential and local elections for over a year, by that time. According to Caruthers, the women of Knoxville were first allowed to vote in a local election held on September 6, 1919. She stated that prior to the election, there was a “flurry of activity in Knoxville from suffragist educating women about their right to vote.” One group that was instrumental in educating and mobilizing women voters was the Colored Women’s Political League. Through the efforts of the group, Ethel M. Downer was the first “COL” or colored woman to register to vote in Knoxville, but on election day, she was not the first woman of color to vote. Sadler was, and according to Caruthers, this discovery in the old newspaper articles “absolutely took my breath away,” because even though she minored in Women’s Studies in college, she had never really been “exposed to . . . anything women of color had done.”
According to Caruthers, because the Black owned weekly newspapers were not preserved like the articles from the Knox News Sentinel, little else is known about the day Sadler cast the first vote by a black woman in Knoxville. While Caruthers was not able to find out much more about what happened on September 6, 1919, she was able to find that Sadler spent the rest of her life actively involved in the Mechanicsville community where she lived and owned her own home. She also contributed to the “Empty Stocking Fund,” served on the board of the Ethel Beck Home of Negro Boys and Girls, and was part of a national council of PTAs for Black schools.
As we wrapped up our time together on the phone, I asked Caruthers if she interviewed any of Sadler’s descendants as part of her research for The Big Day. She said that she found a few relatives after quite a bit of searching and they had no idea that Agnes was such a pivotal part of women’s history in Knoxville. I then asked Caruthers to describe to me what her research on Agnes, her connection with Agnes’s family and the release of The Big Day meant to her. She said, “I am thrilled that I made this discovery so that I can show what she did in Knoxville, not only to the people who buy and read the book, but also through connecting with her family and being able to share with them this achievement in her life.”
During this Women’s History Month, I want to express my gratitude to Caruthers for her commitment to telling Sadler’s story and telling it right and to Agnes Sadler for modeling what excellence looks like for generations of women to come.
Click here for more information on Caruthers and The Big Day.
Additional resources related to Women’s History Month: