This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which nationally gave women the right to vote. If you wished to identify a single woman in Knoxville who embodied the fight for suffrage and many other causes, Lizzie Crozier French would be the most obvious candidate. She’s immortalized in bronze on Market Square striding confidently along with two other activists representing other parts of the state.
As well as our leading leader of suffrage, Lizzie Crozier French was an acclaimed educator who helped open places of learning like the University of Tennessee to women students, and who acted broadly as a social reform activist. French was born in Knoxville in 1851. Her father, John H. Crozier (1812-1889), was an attorney and a former, two-term congressman, and her grandfather, Captain John Crozier (1769-1838) served as Knoxville’s second postmaster for more than thirty years. When young Lizzie was two, the family moved into a new home on the corner of Gay and West Clinch where the Hyatt Place (the old Farragut Hotel) stands today. The home was notable for its remarkable library, in which Lizzie and her two sisters found inspiration. That library was also appreciated by Gen. Ambrose Burnside chose to commandeer the Crozier house for a time in 1863 when the Union Army took control of the city.
By then, Crozier, a Confederate supporter and moved his family temporarily out of town. The Crozier name though still has some local currency – the recently constructed Crozier building in the Old City is indirectly named for the Crozier family. Her parents sent Lizzie away to school, first to a convent in Georgetown in the District of Columbia, and later to an Episcopalian school in Middle Tennessee. In 1872 she starred as the leading part of Mrs. Hardcastle in a local play, She Stoops to Conquer, at the former Young Men’s Dancing Club on Main Street, alongside future author Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy), who lived in Knoxville just after the Civil War during the mid-1860s and 1870s. French remained friends with the author for years.
A decade later French helped stage Norma an opera by Bellini, with Gustave Knabe, the immigrant from Leipzig, Germany, who later founded the Knoxville Philharmonic Society - a forerunner to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Lizzie Crozier’s marriage to William Baxter French, was short-lived – he died within two years of the marriage leaving her to raise their infant child as a single mother. She never married again but chose to devote the rest of her life to the cause of women’s rights and social reform.
One of the first projects she became deeply involved in was the re-opening of the East Tennessee Female Institute. There was a family connection: her grandfather Capt. John Crozier was a founding trustee in 1820. The institute, which stood on a high point overlooking the Tennessee River (about where the Central Street Methodist Church is today), benefited deeply by French’s leadership. Along with her two sisters, Lucy and Mary, French conducted a private school there during the 1870s and ‘80s, instructing girls and young women during an era when they were excluded from most colleges and universities.
Over the years, the institute became more popularly known as French’s School. One talent that Lizzie Crozier French had in abundance was public speaking, and her elocution class at the institute led to the publication of her notable text “A Manual of Elocution.” French was a formidable speaker, and her message may have been rather provocative for the time, challenging inbred customs. She often shocked audiences by saying, “I wish I could stand here today and say ‘Fellow Citizens’ but since I’m not recognized as a fellow citizen I must say citizens and fellow servants.” Another favorite quote was, “If you’re going to say it at all, say it loud!” Her reputation lead to regional speaking engagements, including the dedication of the Tennessee town of Rugby, founded in 1880.
In the 1890s, Lizzie Crozier’s community work began to intensify. She helped found the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union and the Mount Rest Home on McCalla Avenue for elderly women. She also established the position of matron in the Knoxville Police Department, ensuring that women and children were treated differently from male criminals. French herself served as temporary matron before Hattie Cora Stearns “Mother” Thompson (the mother of Knoxville’s most famous photographer, Jim Thompson) was hired. Despite her community-minded efforts, Lizzie Crozier French still found time for travel and cultural pursuits.
In 1884, she visited New York City attending a literal and political event at one of the nation’s first professional women’s clubs. Back in Knoxville, she helped form Ossoli Circle, a progressive intellectual women’s club that held its early meetings at the Female Institute. The durable organization, which claims to be the oldest women’s club in the south, is still active today and was named for the noted American journalist and social activist, Margaret Fuller Ossili (1810-1850.) French took the train north to experience the spectacle of the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, and such trips may have increased her confidence in speaking about topics such as “The Art of the Louvre” and “The Culture of Luxembourg” at the Nicholson Art League in Knoxville. She was also a charter member of the “Art Museum” and the Lyceum, two of Knoxville’s early art-based institutions of the same era. Sadly, her portrait by professional artist Lloyd Branson no longer exists – it was lost when the Women’s Building on Main Street went up in flames in 1906. That painting was reportedly one of the most treasured pieces of art in the city.
At the turn of the century, French became more involved in the local suffrage movement and was elected President of the Tennessee Suffrage Association. As the city’s most vocal leader for women’s rights, she became a true Knoxville icon.
Several hundred yards from the Suffrage Statue on Market Street stands a new memorial to Febb and Harry Burn. Lizzie Crozier French is believed to have directly inspired Febb Burn to play her own, pivotal, part in the suffrage movement. The wife of a farmer from Niota, Tennessee (about 50 miles southwest of Knoxville) Febb Burn encouraged her son to do his part in ratifying the 19th Amendment. As a young Republican member of the Tennessee General Assembly for McMinn County, Harry Burn had originally intended to vote along his party lines and against the amendment. But he carried with him a letter from his mother urging him to do the right thing – to vote “YES” and vote in favor of the amendment. The Tennessee voting session ended with a 48-48 split vote, but on a subsequent vote, directly inspired his mother’s note, Harry Burn changed his mind and changed history, making Tennessee the 36th state to approve the amendment, thereby passing the 19th Amendment nationally.
For Lizzie Crozier French that result must have been the epitome of everything she had held dear and fought for her entire life. In her seventies, Lizzie Crozier French ran for City Council in 1923. Although she lost narrowly, her message to the voting public extolled the many institutions and organizations she had been involved in. “My record as a public-spirited citizen,” she said, “is known to all of those who have given attention to the educational and welfare activities of Knoxville during the last half century.” Among these, you could count the city’s first hospital and the first kindergarten, parks and playgrounds, the juvenile court, and the Knoxville Writers Club. “I believe in a ‘square deal for all’ said French, “young and old, rich and poor, white and black and men and women.”
Three years later, after a brief illness, she collapsed while attending the dedication of a room in her honor at the National Women’s Party Building in Washington. She died the next day and her body was returned to Knoxville. In her obituary, she was described as a “great organizer” and “a woman of rare intelligence [who] had the faculty to put her ideas and thought into practice.” Her legacy still lives on. You can visit Lizzie Crozier French’s grave in Old Gray Cemetery.
Of course, she’s right there every day on Market Square.
Learn more at The Knoxville History Project: KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org.