John Shearer: The 19th Amendment Centennial, Part 2 – Remembering Chattanoogan Abby Crawford Milton

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - by John Shearer

As was detailed last month, women could both elect representatives and run for the Lookout Mountain School Board in 1918 – two years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women nationally the right to vote.
 
This Tennessee state law that allowed Mrs. James (Norrine) Anderson to become a pioneer school board member was due in part to some personal lobbying efforts by another trailblazing Chattanooga woman – Mrs. George Fort (Abby Crawford) Milton.  
 
As a multi-part look at the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the amendment and Tennessee’s role in it continues, a glance at Ms.

Milton’s life shows her important role.
 
While numerous people nationally and even in Tennessee were involved in the women’s suffrage movement stretching over decades, Ms. Milton was certainly a key local and state leader, despite being younger than the others.
 
She was not involved early on and she soon went on to focus on other issues after 1920, but for a brief period she helped provide key leadership at what turned out to be ground zero in efforts to get the amendment ratified.
 
While that was significant enough and is probably her most lasting contribution, she also accomplished quite a bit more. She later used her same communication skills to become a poet and author – including putting together a book called “Lookout Mountain – and was a key person in pushing federal lawmakers to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 
 
This pioneering modern woman was also quite a Renaissance woman, as she also had a law degree from the Chattanooga College of Law.
 
And in case she needed any more diverse accomplishments later in life, she also managed to live until the rarely visited age of 110, retaining a sharp mind and vibrancy apparently until about the end.
 
This woman ahead of her time was also a woman of her time, as she also embraced being the daughter of a Confederate Civil War officer and was active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. And she was apparently human as well, as one piece of historical documentation talks in part about some conflict she had at least briefly with Nashville women’s suffrage leader Anne Dallas Dudley.  
 
Born on Feb. 6, 1881 – the same day of the year as President Ronald Reagan -- she was the daughter of Capt. Charles Crawford of Milledgeville, Ga., the publisher of The Southern Recorder newspaper. About the time she was attending what is now Georgia College when it was a women’s school, she was in Knoxville doing some studies when she met George Fort Milton Sr.
 
A widower, he was the publisher of both the Knoxville Sentinel and the Chattanooga News. His position of course no doubt helped give her more of a voice in the movement.
 
She also went on to raise three daughters: Mrs. Frances Walker, Mrs. Corinne Milton Moore and Mrs. George Van Deusen.  A descendent still in Chattanooga is her grandson, longtime former Baylor drama instructor and current wrestling assistant coach Schaack Van Deusen. 
 
As Ms. Milton recounted in later years, she was actually slow to join the women’s suffrage movement. She said she was eating at the mezzanine level of the Hotel Patten with someone about the mid-1910s, when two local supporters of the movement came up and asked the other woman – Ernestine Noa – if she could be their president. 
 
Ms. Noa told them she would if Ms. Milton – who had not been involved in the movement basically at all – would be their vice president. Ms. Milton thought she would not have to do much as the VP, but soon learned Ms. Noa had moved.
 
However, she believed in the movement and threw herself literally head over high heels into helping the group and soon became a state leader. An audiotaped interview she did in 1983 with Marylin Bell Hughes of the Tennessee Library Archives mentions in detail all the fights the women had both among themselves and of course with the larger male-dominated world.
 
She talked of the efforts to get Gov. Albert Roberts to call a special session, and of how supporters of both sides set up camp in the Hermitage Hotel trying to get support for and against ratification. Her husband’s Chattanooga News supported the ratification efforts as did others like the Commercial Appeal, but the Chattanooga Times was one of those that did not, even though it supported more progressive causes in later decades.
            
Due apparently to the efforts of a letter his mother wrote him, young representative Harry Burn of McMinn County is credited with casting the deciding vote to give the legislature enough votes to help Tennessee become the 36th and deciding state to ratify the amendment.
 
Ms. Milton had attained leadership as the last president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and the first president of the Tennessee League of Women Voters after its ratification.
 
She went on to work on other projects, including giving a speech seconding the presidential nomination of old Chattanooga friend William Gibbs McAdoo at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. After her husband died in 1924, she and stepson George Fort Milton Jr. – who also became an accomplished writer – continued publishing the Chattanooga News.
 
The paper came out for TVA and public power, which was not popular locally and caused some advertising boycotts and was a financial factor in the paper’s sale to Roy McDonald of the Chattanooga Free Press in 1939.
 
She also ran unsuccessfully for the Tennessee Senate in 1930.
 
Until moving to the Clearwater/Tampa area of Florida in the late 1940s initially to be with a daughter, she lived for a number of years – including in 1920 – in a still-standing home at 508 Fort Wood Place near UTC.
 
In later years, Chattanoogans were able to keep up with her primarily through the efforts of the Chattanooga News-Free Press. The Chattanooga Public Library has clippings of Free Press profiles done on her by Helen M. Exum in 1972, by Susan Pierce later in the 1970s, by George W. Brown in 1981, by Carolyn Farmer in 1982, by Anne P. Bowers in 1984, and by Jan Galletta in 1986, 1989 and 1990.
 
The paper that bought her out was still continuing to help her stand out. And she still seemed to possess a zest for life. She had helped carry America into the 20th century – and was staying around long enough to enjoy most of it.
 
Death finally came on May 2, 1991, and she was buried at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park in Clearwater, Fl.
 
In recent years, a Tennessee State Historical Marker has been put up at the small grassy area at McCallie and Georgia avenues. And the centennial of the ratification of this amendment is likely to bring even more local attention to this very unique centenarian.
 
* * * * *

To see the first story in this series, read here.

 


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