Exhibits at Workhouse Arts Center to highlight hard-fought, local struggle for women’s right to vote.
They had doggedly advocated for a long-denied right, and for that, they would suffer.
They were stripped. Beaten and dragged. Tossed against iron beds in filthy cells. Chained to the bars. All because they wanted to vote.
On November 14, 1917, members of the Silent Sentinels—considered the first group to picket the White House—were brutally imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse in what would be deemed the Night of Terror. President Woodrow Wilson, opposed to the suffrage cause, had grown tired of and embarrassed by the increasingly vitriolic signage of these suffragists, who had protested for months and were regularly arrested.
Chief among them was Lucy Burns, who with fellow co-founder of the National Woman’s Party, Alice Paul, helped organize the demonstrations. Brooklyn-born Burns was arrested multiple times, spending more time in jail than any other American suffragist.
Like Paul, Burns went on hunger strikes and was force-fed while imprisoned, a barbaric process of delivering raw eggs and milk directly to the stomach via a tube inserted down the nasal passage. Yet arrests and pain did not deter Burns and Paul, who adopted the relentlessness they had learned in the U.K. while working with British suffragettes.
This year, Burns’ legacy will be recognized at the forthcoming Lucy Burns Museum, built on the very premises where she was tortured.
“It’s a piece of history that isn’t showcased really anywhere else,” says Ava Spece, CEO of the Workhouse Arts Center, which opened in the prison space in 2008. “We’d like that national story to ring loudly at a time when the importance of voting and the power of voting is something that is in the consciousness of our country, in terms of how we elect our officials and what that conversation is about.”
Between July and November 1917, 72 suffragists from the National Woman’s Party were held at the workhouse. Though the center’s current prison museum shares some of these stories, a more formal exhibit space will bring a sharper focus to the outsize role the prison played in the women’s struggle—the site of torture that ultimately inspired greater public and political sympathy for the suffragists’ cause.
The more than 8,000-square-foot museum will boast 4,000-plus square feet of exhibits as well as 38 original cell blocks that visitors can tour. Though the suffragists’ stories will be spotlighted, additional narratives from the prison’s 91-year history will also be shared, Spece says. Thus far, Workhouse has received roughly $2 million for construction and hopes to raise another $500,000 for staff and exhibits, designed by the firm Howard+Revis. The center has support from Fairfax County and is developing relationships with nearby history organizations, such as the D.C. Archives and the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association, which is raising funds for a monument in nearby Occoquan Regional Park.
The original workhouse facility opened as an experiment in prison reform under the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt, an alternative to the poor conditions of the D.C. jail that was intended to teach prisoners the value in hard work.
Early prisoners helped convert the facility from wood to brick and toiled to keep the prison self-sustaining, at one point supplying all of the milk used in D.C. public schools, Spece says. And in the 1950s and ’60s, the Lorton Jazz Festival brought the biggest names in jazz to the prison, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. The prison also had its fair share of famous occupants, such as Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, go-go great Chuck Brown and local DJ Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. After years of decline, the prison closed in 2001 and was purchased by Fairfax County the following year.
“History is something that has the power to captivate us. It has the power to teach us lessons as we move forward in the future,” Spece says. “Any time that we have a conversation about protest, and pushing forward policy, and pushing forward national agendas and activities is crucial. And this allows us to shine that light.”