Next stop on our recent historic women's landmarks road trip (previous post): Not far from the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial in Lorton, Virginia, is the
Lucy Burns Museum, located on the campus of the Workhouse Arts Center that is on the site of the former Occoquan Workhouse. In 1917, suffragists, known as Silent Sentinels, who were peacefully picketing the White House, were imprisoned in Occoquan Workhouse. The dormitories have been renovated for use by visual and performing artists, educators, and community organizers. The Lucy Burns Museum is located in Building W-2, South East corner of the quad. It opened on January 25, 2020, followed by a second festive opening on May 9. Linda and I were warmly welcomed by Anne O'Dell and Kendall Reed.
Lucy Burns, the co-founder with Alice Paul of the creative, in-your-face National Woman's Party, served multiple jail sentences, including two in the Occoquan Workhouse. On November 14, 1917, she and 32 other imprisoned suffragists,
endured brutal treatment by a mob of prison guards, ordered into action by Superintendent Whittaker. Overpowered and forced into a cell, Lucy Burns started to call roll "in her clear, beautiful voice . . . to see if all were there and alive." Crazed by her refusal to "Shut-Up," guards handcuffed Lucy Burns to her cell door with her arms stretched above her head. Julia Emory who had been grabbed by the neck and thrown in the same cell raised her arms and stood beside Lucy Burns all night long. Suffragists named the trauma—"The Night of Terror." (This horrific incident is one of the many little known suffrage stories that I tell in my book The Vote: Women's Fierce Fight.)
The next day, the battered and traumatized suffragists went on a hunger strike. When Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis weakened, the prison doctor force-fed them, a form of torture. Finally on November 27 and 28, a judge ordered the release of all imprisoned suffragists. Four months later, on March 4, 1918, the U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruled that the arrest and detainment of the pickets were unconstitutional.
The two-room Lucy Burns Museum tells the history of the Occoquan Workhouse in one room. The other room highlights this crucial period in the fight for the vote. I was deeply moved to see a statue beside a VOTES FOR WOMEN banner representing the little recognized, but, oh, so important suffragist—the stalwart Dora Kelly Lewis. A tall woman with a kindly face that belied steely courage and fortitude, Dora Lewis had been left a widow with three small children at the age of twenty-eight. She was now fifty-five-year-old, the acting chair of the NWP, and the spokesperson for the group. (The chair, Alice Paul, was in the Washington, D.C. District Jail.) Moments before Superintendent Whittaker, ordered the attack, Dora Lewis had demanded that they be treated as political prisoners.
"Seize her!" Whittaker shouted to his men. Thrown in a cell, her head hitting the iron bed, Dora Lewis was knocked unconscious.
The Lucy Burns Museum includes actual prison logs from the timeframe when the suffragists were imprisoned; large two-sided, interactive, illustrated information panels; a video; and two more statues—a seated statue represents Alice Paul, a standing statue represents Lucy Burns.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns met in England where they had worked with militant suffragettes. Looking at the oversized white statues, I remembered how I had described them: "A slender woman with a mass of dark hair, Alice Paul had dramatic eyes . . .Everyone agreed that her gaze was irresistible." Lucy Burns was "fearless, eloquent . . .a tall and muscular woman with a pile of bright red hair."
(Click to enlarge images) The top two images are the original prison cells. Missing are the rats and vermin that had inhabited the filthy cells. Suffragists made a game out of counting the number of maggots in their food. The undauntable women also composed songs, passing a phrase, a line that they called out from cell to cell. Accompanied by a hair comb played by Annie Ariel, the women created the stirring anthem Shout the Revolution, with the line—"Invincible our army, forward, forward."
I am pointing to the open toilet. Paper and flushing was controlled by the guards. The other images are self-explanatory. Laura Adams McKie, the force behind the museum and the first director said, "I mean the gutsiness of picketing, knowing that you were going to be arrested and put into jail. I wouldn't have had the bravery to do that, especially considering the jail conditions in those days. I think that kind of bravery is something people need to know about."