“Passing the Torch”

“Passing the Torch” was installed in 2020 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment through the celebration of a diverse and cohesive movement that continues to impact the social standing of women in our society today.

The Coalition Story

The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 was conceptualized over a cup of tea. Similarly, the Centennial Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Johnson City was first discussed over lunch by Johnson City resident, Linda Good and City Mayor, Jenny Brock. At that meeting, Linda and Jenny discussed the importance of creating awareness and celebrating the importance of the 19th Amendment passage and Tennessee’s role as the 36th and necessary final state to ratify. At that time they did not realize that Johnson City was a focal point of suffrage activities leading up to that ratification. After over fifteen months of planning, fundraising, and traversing many road bumps (including a pandemic) in their journey, the Centennial Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Johnson City presented the “Passing the Torch” mural to Mayor Brock and the community on October 10, 2020.

Passion and partnerships were integral to the completion of Coalition efforts. In June 2019, Mayor Brock contacted Alan Bridwell regarding his knowledge of local women involved in the suffrage movement. Bridwell reached out to other local historians he had worked with during Johnson City’s Sesquicentennial Celebration including Tom Roberts who enthusiastically began researching the topic. Meanwhile, Rebecca Proffitt, archivist at the ETSU Reece Museum, knew of and sought out the perfect mural artist match in Ellen Elmes. A history enthusiast as well as an artist, Ellen had just begun her research into the Suffrage Movement at Seneca Falls when contacted by Rebecca.

The historic content provided herein has been compiled by Coalition historian, Tom Roberts. If you have additional information concerning the history of the Movement in Johnson City, please contact the City of Johnson City Communications and Marketing office at cojcnews@johnsoncitytn.org for additional consideration.

Several events that had been planned by the Coalition Education group headed by Coalition Co-leader, Joy Fulkerson of ETSU’s Leadership and Civic Engagement, had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A parade similar to the one held on October 7, 1916 in Johnson City led by Mary Eliza Shaut White was to be organized, but due to pandemic restrictions, the Coalition opted for a short procession of Coalition participants dressed in Suffragist attire on the mural presentation day, October 10, 2020. Stacey White Ferren, granddaughter of Mary Eliza Shaut White, led the procession down Ashe Street to the mural site to begin the ceremony. A program of the ceremony and other historic information can be found in the ETSU Reece Museum archives.

Mural Details

The visual design and narrative of the mural was created by artist Ellen Elmes in accordance with the Coalition’s selected theme. It tells the story of improved voting rights movements in the United States across time beginning with the Suffrage Movement and continuing into the 21st Century.

The process of creating the mural involved painting the imagery both on and off the wall. In 2018, Ellen Elmes and her husband Don engaged in a tutorial with the Philadelphia Mural Arts artist Nathaniel Lee to learn the process of preparing, painting and installing fabric panels on outdoor walls in the creation of a permanent mural. With this knowledge, Ellen was able to paint in her studio from April through July, (during the 2020 stay-at-home requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic), all the imagery on 16 separate fabric panels that comprise the left, right, and middle rectangular blocks of the mural design. Then, from late August to mid-September 2020, Ellen and Don installed the panels with a thick acrylic gel that affixes the panels, edge to edge, permanently to the wall. Next, by painting directly on the brick, they added the “bridge” imagery of the hands passing the torch between women through the ages. The final additions included the black border to all the outside edges, as well as the lower middle border which gives credit to the major funders of the mural project.

View the Passing the Torch in Progress page for additional photos of the installation process.

Coalition Historian Tom Roberts compiled biographies of the individuals who appear in the mural. Discover the histories of these remarkable women and men on the following pages:

Mothers of the Suffrage Movement

The Next Generation

Tennesseans in the Fight

Johnson City Suffragists

Other Significant Suffragists

Links for Additional Information

Sponsoring Organizations

After a Coalition fundraising event named Vibes and Votes was held at the Willow Tree, a local Coffee House and Music Hall just prior to the imposition of gathering restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bravissima! Women Sponsoring the Arts! provided a major portion of the necessary money to pay for the mural. The Johnson City Public Art Committee provided the materials, and creation of the mural began.