Retelling Lorton's History of Suffrage

Retelling Lorton's History of Suffrage

Historic marker detailing suffragists' struggles at Occoquan Workhouse rededicated.

The buildings may have crumbled decades ago, their wooden structures falling prey to time and the elements, but the stories enclosed in the Occoquan Workhouse won't soon be forgotten.

During the dedication ceremony for the new Frederick P. Griffith Jr. Water Treatment Plant on Saturday, July 15, the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area played the part of historians, telling the story of the suffragists who were held in the Occoquan Workhouse while trying to earn the right to vote.

In 1982, the League secured a white historic marker to formally acknowledge the place where Lucy Paul and more than 100 other women were kept after being arrested for protesting in front of the White House, said Leslie Byrne, a former state senator and president of the League in Fairfax.

"These women were beaten, force fed and kept from their families," Byrne said. "They made a stand for all of us, that freedom deserves to be fought for. They were making a statement for all of us."

Two of the suffragists, Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, had met in England while working for suffrage there, said Sherry Zachry, current president of the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area.

"Alice had realized that doing hunger strikes earned you a lot of attention. When they came to America and became involved with the suffrage movement here, they had a difference of opinion with Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a lady," Zachry said. Catt was also the founder of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and modeled herself and her group's actions after Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were involved in the Seneca Falls Convention in 1910.

PAUL AND BURNS eventually split from Catt and organized picketing demonstrations in front of the White House, calling on President Woodrow Wilson to give women the right to vote. However, in the middle of World War I, he had other things on his mind and ignored the suffragists, Zachry said.

For "embarrassing the presidents" and carrying signs that referred to him as "Kaiser Wilson," he had the protesters arrested for distracting traffic and sent to the Occoquan Workhouse, which used to stand where the new water treatment plant was built.

"These were the first women to be imprisoned for demanding suffrage," Zachry said. The women, who were imprisoned for periods of several days up to six months, were sent to Lorton repeatedly for nearly a year.

"Some of these women were socially prominent, from high-class families," said Bernice Colvard, historian for the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area. "The conditions in prisons at the time were not good to begin with, but these women were given blankets that had not been washed for some time. It was very difficult to them."

To draw more attention to their plight, Burns tried to wage hunger strikes, but was force fed after nearly a week, held down by guards, Colvard said.

The Occoquan Workhouse didn't have barred walls or individual cells, but if the women chose to try to escape, "they were in the middle of the woods. They didn't have any money, most likely, to take the train back into the District, so they didn't have anywhere to go," she said.

ALTHOUGH THE BUILDINGS were torn down years ago, a historical marker was first established at the site of the Workhouse in 1982, courtesy of the League of Women Voters and Joe Flakney, a member who believed that the women needed to be honored for their work.

"It's not all that easy to get permission from the state and locality to recognize something as an authentic historic site," Colvard said.

When work began on the water treatment plant in 2000, Fairfax Water removed the marker and stored it in a trailer until it was replaced last week.

The new location, near the gatehouse of the plant, is adjacent to a turn-around area, so people interested in reading it have a place to park, she said.

"It's good to remind people where we came from so we can let them know how we got to where we are today," Colvard said.

"The suffragists' place in American history should never be forgotten," said Lynne Garvey-Wark, a Fairfax County History Commissioner. "All women, those who vote as well as those who hold public office, are forever indebted to their courage and commitment to freedom.”

Putting up a marker to recognize the suffragists' struggles and eventual victory is "the least we can do is pay tribute to them ... and say thank you for all they've done for us," said Byrne. "We stand on the shoulders of giants."