Monday, February 10, 2020

Stories from the Sixteenth State: Cornelia Fort

By Zachary Keith and Casey Gymrek

The first episode of the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ new podcast, Stories from the Sixteenth State, shares the story of Nashville aviator, Cornelia Fort. In this episode, we hear from staff members, Zachary Keith and Casey Gymrek, who recount Fort’s remarkable life.

Cornelia Clark Fort was born on February 5, 1919, to Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort and Louise Clark Fort in Nashville, Tennessee. She attended Ross Elementary and Ward-Belmont in Nashville, before enrolling at Ogontz Junior College (the same school that Amelia Earhart attended) and finally graduated with a two-year degree from Sarah Lawrence.

Photograph of Cornelia Fort, from The Aviation History of Tennessee, by Jim Fulbright.

During the winter of 1940, Cornelia rode on an airplane for the first time. Once the plane took flight, Cornelia’s life was never the same. She immediately wanted to take flying lessons and even waited for hours that day to do so. She soon obtained her pilot’s license. In the summer of 1940, she took Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper on an afternoon flight followed by a dinner date, which the Governor considered “only so-so”. The two repeated their date the following day, but, according to Cooper, Cornelia “was too sleepy to be good company.”

Gov. Prentice Cooper’s Diary for June 21, 1940, GP44: Governor Prentice Cooper Papers. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

On February 8, 1941, Cornelia received her commercial license and began instructing area students. Soon after, Cornelia began applying to flight schools, hoping to get a job as an instructor.

By 1941, the fighting overseas had intensified, and American involvement became more of a likelihood. Once Cornelia received her ground instructor’s certificate, the Andrew Flying Service in Honolulu, Hawaii, offered her an instructor’s position.

Cornelia Fort instructing local boy, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Cornelia was in the air early, instructing local student, Ernest Suomala, when she noticed a military plane flying toward her. The plane passed so closely that it violently rattled the windows of their small training plane. Cornelia, annoyed by the disrespect, looked down and noticed with disbelief the emblem of the Rising Sun on the plane’s wings.

Machine gun fire burst around their plane while Cornelia and her student raced for the hangar. They barely made it inside before a new wave of Japanese Zeroes swept in. Cornelia was the first American pilot to encounter the Japanese squadrons at Pearl Harbor. She spent much of the next year recounting her story to promote war bonds.

Cornelia Fort’s War Department identification card, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

Cornelia Fort’s flight log, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

On September 6, 1942, Cornelia received a telegram recruiting pilots to ferry planes for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFS). She joined WAFS, first serving in Delaware. On February 14, 1943, Cornelia transferred to the 6th Ferrying Group in Long Beach, California. Here, she was able to fly much larger planes than before, ferrying aircraft, on their way to Europe, from Long Beach to Dallas or San Antonio every couple of days.

Telegram from Jackie Cochran asking Cornelia to join the WAFS, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

On Sunday, March 21, 1943, Cornelia and a few other pilots, all-male, left for Dallas. They decided to give formation flying a try even though it was forbidden. Near Merkel, Texas, another pilot flew too close and clipped her wing. Her plane rolled and nosedived. Cornelia Clark Fort became the first female pilot to die on active duty in United States history. She was laid to rest in Nashville’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery next to her father.

Telegram from Prentice Cooper to Cornelia’s mother with condolences upon her death, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

After Cornelia’s death, the WAFS reorganized into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS). The WAFS and subsequent WASPS collectively flew over 60 million miles, delivering 12,652 aircraft of 72 different models. Cornelia clocked over 1,103 hours aloft in her brief career. She was the second woman to obtain her commercial pilot’s license in Tennessee and the first flight instructor. She was portrayed in the film Tora! Tora! Tora! by actor Jeff Donnell. Cornelia Fort Airpark, built on the former Fortland Farms in Nashville, was named in her honor but closed after sustaining irreparable damage in the 2010 flood.

Aerial photograph of Fortland, RG 82: Tennessee Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, 1937-1976. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Hear Cornelia Fort's story in Episode 01 on the Stories from the Sixteenth State podcast.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

Monday, February 3, 2020

Welcome to the Stories from the Sixteenth State podcast!

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is happy to announce the creation of a new podcast called Stories from the Sixteenth State. The title references Tennessee’s 1796 admission to the Union as the 16th state. The podcast will examine the people, places, and events that have shaped Tennessee’s history. Each episode will feature Library and Archives’ staff who will bring you stories about famous and everyday Tennesseans supported by archival audio, photographs, maps, and documents from the Tennessee State Library and Archives collection. Our talented personnel will research, write, and record every installment using publicly available resources found at the Library and Archives.

Archivist Zachary Keith recording the first episode of Stories from the Sixteenth State.

Education Outreach archivist Casey Gymrek recording the first episode of Stories from the Sixteenth State.

Casey Gymrek conducting research on Cornelia Fort, the subject of our forthcoming first episode.

Audio Engineer Eric Raines editing the first episode of Stories from the Sixteenth State.

For a more immersive experience, you can visit our blog, where we will showcase the primary sources used in researching each episode. Since our podcast is created in-house, it is entirely commercial-free.

Our first episode on Nashville aviator Cornelia Fort will launch next Monday, February 10. New episodes will appear every three months. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts to never miss an episode of Stories from the Sixteenth State.

Check out our podcast’s homepage at or the Tennessee State Library and Archives at

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

Monday, January 6, 2020

New Story Map: Mapping the Destruction of Tennessee's African American Neighborhoods

By Zach Keith

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is proud to present a new project using the GIS story mapping tool. Story maps allow for data, documents, and narrative to be presented along with geo-referenced maps to show the spatial evolution of a historical theme.

The "Mapping the Destruction of Tennessee's African American Neighborhoods" story map project details the often destructive impact of urban renewal and interstate projects of the mid-20th century on Tennessee's African American communities.

The mid-20th century building of the interstate highway system, public housing projects, and so-called "urban renewal" programs are commonly viewed as crucial elements in the modernization of America. The plans, however, produced unequal benefits for Tennessee's citizenry. For those whose neighborhoods were unaffected, statistically more likely to be white and wealthy, cities became more attractive and travel easier. For those who lost homes and businesses, more likely to be poor and African American, such projects entailed a severe disruption or even destruction of their communities and made it more difficult to accumulate property and wealth. The effects of these projects persist today.

Before and After: These two images show the razing of Capitol Hill from similar vantage points.

The project combines GIS software and primary sources. Overlaying historical maps onto present-day maps created an interactive exhibit whereby users can visualize the direct effects of these public works projects in cities across Tennessee, revealing how these neighborhoods looked before their erasure from the landscape.

Visit "Mapping the Destruction of Tennessee's African American Neighborhoods" to learn more.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

Friday, January 3, 2020

Happy New Year!

As we say goodbye to 2019, we ring in the new year and welcome 2020 with this spectacular view of our new building, under construction near Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville.

We are also happy to share these images from inside the construction site, taken by architect Kem Hinton, and excited for the upcoming move later this year!

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Bismark Named 2019 TEL Trainer of the Year

By Andrea Zielke, TEL Administrator

I recently had the pleasure of presenting the Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL) Trainer of the Year to Shannon Bismark at Tenn-Share’s 2019 Fall Conference. At this year’s conference, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of TEL. TEL would not have reached this milestone without teachers and librarians, like Shannon, spreading the word across the state about TEL’s valuable electronic resources, including magazines, scholarly journals, podcasts, videos, e-books, test preparation materials, federal records, and more.

Let me tell you a little more about this year’s Trainer of the Year. Shannon is the Teen Services Librarian at Cleveland Bradley County Public Library. It is her mission to open doors and create partnerships with the local schools. When asked who benefits from TEL, she said, “Students, absolutely, of any grade. The way TEL functions, it is easily accessible for any age and it makes citing sources painless.” Shannon knows this from experience because she used TEL when she was a college student.

Shannon Bismark (left), TEL Trainer of the Year, and (right) Andrea Zielke, TEL Administrator.

Shannon spends her days engaging with students. She helps high school students with their research papers. She uses memes and video games to relate her students, all while teaching them about citations and the importance of knowing the source of their information. Her persistence and good humor set an example of what it takes to reach out and build a community of informed, engaged young Tennesseans.

Congratulations to Shannon for being the 2019 TEL Trainer of the Year! You are an asset to your library and community.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Meet the Staff - Bessie Davis

Q&A with Bessie Davis, Director of Regional Libraries

How long have you worked here, and where were you working before you arrived at the Library and Archives? 

I started employment with the Tennessee State Library and Archives on May 6, 2019. I have spent most of my career in Kentucky. I headed the main library of the Louisville Free Public Library, served as a regional library consultant for the Kentucky State Library and Archives, and I served as the Director of the Cynthiana-Harrison County Public Library. I am a native of Georgia. I earned my finance degree at Mercer University, MLS at Clark Atlanta University, and a J.D. at John Marshall Law School.

What are some of the things you do as the Director of Regional Libraries? 

I supervise regional directors and staff, and I provide guidance and consultation to the regional centers, public libraries, trustees, and local officials. I also manage the overall budget of the regional system, advise libraries and local officials on compliance, and present in-service training and continuing education for regional and public library staff on a wide variety of library topics. In addition, I provide training for library board members and serve as the Library and Archive’s representative to the Friends of Tennessee Libraries.

What is your favorite part of your job? 

I love all aspects of my job because no day is the same. Specifically, I enjoy solving problems on a daily basis, and I love the team spirit at the Library and Archives and within the regions.

What collection or resource are you excited about right now?

I cannot wait to have an opportunity to explore the African American Collections and resources as well as the collections that pertain to women in politics, education, and public services.

What do you wish more people knew about the State Library and Archives?

I wish more people knew about the wonderful resources as well as how the Library and Archives can assist them with their academic, family, or personal research.

Do you have a favorite historical figure, event, or place in Tennessee history? 

I love the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton. Yes, it is a beautiful place, but it also symbolizes an important period in history. It is also utilized to bring about change in the lives of our most important assets—our children.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Women Opposing Women: Josephine Pearson and the Anti Suffrage Argument

By Mary DePeder

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the United States with the ratification of the 19th amendment by the Tennessee General Assembly. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the Amendment, bringing it just one state shy of the constitutional majority needed to make it law. When the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to ratify on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became that crucial final state, earning itself the nickname The Perfect 36. Over the next year, we will be sharing stories of the women’s suffrage movement from across the state to celebrate Tennessee’s unique role in this major turning point in American history. The second story in our series investigates the women opposed to ratifying the 19th amendment.

Broadside outlining anti-suffrage arguments against the 19th amendment.

Vowing to uphold her mother’s dying wish to see the fight for women’s suffrage end in defeat, Josephine Pearson saw the battle for Tennessee as a righteous crusade to defend the fallen Confederacy and traditional, southern gender norms. Her zealous dedication to uplifting true womanhood through feisty, anti-suffragist essays earned her a place as president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and the Southern Woman's League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. At every turn, Pearson and her band of anti-suffs worked tirelessly to unravel the actions of pro-suffragist efforts, coming to a head in the summer of 1920 as the tug of war between yellow and red roses intensified.

Photograph of anti-suffrage leader, Josephine Pearson. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

Stoking the political fires through sensationalized cartoons, pamphlets, and newspaper columns, anti-suffragists capitalized on the nation’s fears during a period of incredible flux. In the aftermath of World War I, women’s roles and attitudes toward the public sphere shifted dramatically. Long held beliefs of Victorian womanhood and the ideology of separate spheres between women and men slowly eroded under the guise of the “new woman.” A growing momentum among women instead suggested that they could create a life outside of marriage and motherhood that both economically sustained and intellectually stimulated them.

This curtailed Pearson’s belief in true womanhood which demanded unwavering subordination of women to men and their ultimate dependency on male guidance and economic support. A woman belonged in the home, caring for her family, and needed protection from the corrupt political sphere. Rapidly changing ideas on women’s roles inside and outside the home, however, threatened Pearson and the anti-suffs desired way of life. For the anti-suffragist movement, the defeminization of the American woman, brought on by an increase of women in the workforce and looser morals in terms of fashion and courtship, would spell destruction for the sacred American family. And, as far as the Antis were concerned, the only group to blame for such evils against society were Suffs teeming the line of decency and pushing women closer to the debauched world of politics.

Political cartoon circulated by anti-suffragists warning the public about the dangers of swapped gender roles if suffrage were to pass. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

To retaliate, the Antis sought to construct an image of the suffragists as mannish, socialist- leaning rebels hellbent on destroying traditional gender roles. Political cartoons frequently captured this sentiment by depicting an empty home with unattended children, like the image below. Or, preying on the nation’s fear of feminized masculinity, anti-suffragist cartoons depicted households in which traditional gender roles were swapped. These images served to stir the public’s emotions, namely fear at the prospect of a crumbling, family unit, the very fabric of American life according to anti suffrage doctrine in which the wife and mother took center stage.

Anti-suffrage political cartoon anticipating the demise of the American family after the ratification of the 19th amendment. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

In response, suffragists widely publicized the image of Anne Dallas Dudley nestled alongside her small children reading. A perfect, domestic scene that would otherwise please anti-suffragist ideology, Dudley’s presence butted up against the Anti’s argument that suffrage for women meant empty homes and empty stomachs. More importantly, Dudley’s presence indicated that a woman could be both a loving mother and dedicated suffragist.

Photograph of Anne Dallas Dudley reading to her children. Bettie Mizell Donelson Family Papers, 1787-1938.

The most pressing threat Pearson and her anti-suffrage sisters capitalized on and exploited was the threat that full equality for women posed to white supremacy. Born and raised in the shadow of a post-Civil War South feverishly steeped in Lost Cause nostalgia, Pearson held fast to the belief that women’s suffrage would upend the social order of the south. Granting women the right to vote meant placing power in the hands of African American women, too. This was a frightening concept to the anti-suffrage campaign as they warned, through lectures and broadsides, that it would create an imbalance of power between the races. White women, they argued, would refuse to enter an integrated polling station preferring instead to stay home than cast their vote. Whereas, African American women would enthusiastically turn out to exercise their newfound political power, thereby threatening the white majority of the south. Moreover, ratifying the 19th amendment would bring about the demise of states’ rights. As Antis insisted, women’s equality would open the floodgates for racial equality as the federal government would enforce strict adherence to the 15th Amendment. All deemed wholly unacceptable and deadly to white supremacy.

Anti-suffrage broadside warning southern men of the dangers of women’s suffrage. Josephine A. Pearson Papers, 1860-1943.

The suffrage movement, in comparison, was not immune to racial prejudice. Rather, support for black suffragists was tentative, wavered often, and, at its worst, embraced racist rhetoric to achieve their own self-interests. For African American women, this meant cultivating their own organizations to fight for enfranchisement. In doing so, they were constantly caught between combating anti-suffrage rhetoric and violence and resisting pushback from suffrage leaders to hurry up and wait for white women to succeed before securing rights themselves.

Although Pearson’s efforts ultimately failed in the summer of 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment, the barriers anti-suffragists put in place were long lasting, especially for African American women. Following defeat, Josephine Pearson accepted a dean position with the Southern Seminary of Virginia. For suffrage leaders, the victory in Tennessee was a moment to savor and reflect on their hard-earned success. Their battle for equality was at long last won. For African American women, the success of the 19th Amendment was less clear-cut and in many ways, merely a starting point for full equality.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett