Murfreesboro Post Top 10: Women with historic impact

The Murfreesboro Post, February 18, 2007

A political matron from the time Murfreesboro was the state’s capitol and an astronaut are among the 10 women featured in a new exhibit at the The Heritage Center of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, now open at 225 West College Street.

Entitled “From the Nation’s Capital to Neighborhood Classrooms: Rutherford County Women, Past and Present,” the historic women featured make up this week’s Murfreesboro Post Top 10.

The center’s heritage programming specialist Melissa Zimmerman pointed out the exhibit definitely is not a ranking of the most historic women from the area but a collection of women who have had a special impact.

“As you know, our exhibit’s intention is to highlight a few of the many, many women who have made a difference in our community (past and present) – including some that local residents may not be aware of. There are many additional women who have made a tremendous difference – certainly some of these were recently featured in the Post’s article on the women honored by the United Way,” Zimmerman said.

In its exhibit introduction, the center notes: Rutherford County women have had a powerful influence throughout the years. Women have raised families, tilled fields, taught children, upheld churches, written books, worked in factories, and governed citizens — just to name a few of their contributions.

This exhibit recognizes ten of the thousands of prominent educators, professionals, housewives, and farmwives who have made a difference.

Featured in the exhibit are: Sarah Childress Polk. Sarah Childress Polk served as First Lady of the United States from 1845 to 1849. The daughter of a successful merchant and planter, Polk grew up observing the political atmosphere of Murfreesboro while it was the capital of Tennessee. She attended the local Daniel Elam School, was tutored by Principal Samuel P. Black of Bradley Academy, attended the Abercrombie School in Nashville and completed her education at North Carolina’s Moravian Female Academy.

In 1824, she married lawyer James K. Polk, a member of the General Assembly whose political career would come to include United States Representative, Speaker of the House, Governor of Tennessee and President. With her intelligence, grace and well-honed political instincts, Polk assisted her husband privately and publicly.

Polk reviewed daily newspapers, marking important articles for her husband and maintained an active round of political meetings and correspondence.

As First Lady, she greeted visitors to the White House twice a week. When her husband died shortly after his presidential term, the former First Lady returned to Nashville, where she lived near the State Capitol until her death in 1891.

Mary Kate Patterson Mary Kate Patterson, who lived near La Vergne, was an active Confederate spy from 1862 to 1865. She befriended occupying Union troops and regularly obtained passes to Nashville, where she secretly secured supplies and messages to smuggle in the false bottom of her buggy. Her family sheltered and fed Confederate soldiers in their home on Nolensville Road, close to the Rutherford County line. They used louvers and lanterns in windows to signal Confederate soldiers when it was safe to come in for medical assistance, hot meals and refuge.

After Union forces executed family friend Sam Davis in 1864, Patterson traveled to Pulaski to identify the body; she married Sam’s brother John Davis that same year.

Patterson lived at 158 Fergus Drive in La Vergne for most of her life; upon her death in 1931, she became the first woman buried in the Confederate Circle in Nashville’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Willie Betty Newman Born near Murfreesboro, was an important turn-of-the-century painter and a pioneering art educator. She attended Soule College in Murfreesboro, Greenwood Seminary in Lebanon, and the Cincinnati Art Academy in Ohio, where she studied under Thomas S. Noble.

Newman received a series of academic scholarships for study in Paris at the Adademie Julian, spending 12 years under the direction of such renowned artists as Adolphe Bouguereau. In France, Newman specialized in peasant-life genre scenes and exhibited paintings in the Paris Salon. Her painting En Penitence (c. 1895), in its intimate depiction of the relationship between child and caregiver, reflects how many of her paintings imply a “sacred association with the woman figure,” as art historian Marilyn Masler has noted. Newman returned to Tennessee in 1900 and settled in Nashville, where she became an arts advocate and educator.

Her Newman School of Art was short-lived, but she also welcomed students and fellow artists to her studio in the Vauxhall Apartments. Newman served on the executive committee of the influential Nashville Art Association, which sponsored her 1916 one-person exhibition and awarded her its first gold medal in the visual arts.

Murfreesboro native Will Allen Dromgoole became a successful writer, influential literary editor and powerful public speaker. She studied at the Clarksville Female Academy and the New England School of Expression in Boston.

In 1866, Dromgoole published her first novel, The Sunny Side of the Cumberland. Its use of characters based upon the people of Tennessee would be a theme of her writing for the rest of her life. Dromgoole also studied law with her father and was elected as a clerk for the state Senate twice.

In 1903, Dromgoole developed the popular column “Song and Story” for the Nashville Banner and, in 1922, became the literary editor, a position she retained until her death.

During World War II, she served as a yeomanry warrant officer for the U.S. Navy.

The author of 13 books, thousands of poems, and dozens of stories, Dromgoole was named Poet Laureate by the Poetry Society of the South in 1930.

Mary Ellen Vaughn Originally from Alabama, was an entrepreneur and skilled nurse who used her talents to promote the interests of Murfreesboro’s African American community in the first half of the twentieth century.

Vaughn’s extensive education included Tuskegee Institute, Chicago Business College and Tennessee A&I State College. She established the African American newspaper Murfreesboro Union in 1920 and Vaughn’s Training School in 1933. During the 1920s, she worked as a nurse in the Commonwealth Fund’s nationally significant effort to improve rural public health in Rutherford County.

Her school provided home health-care instruction and adult education, and served as a clearinghouse for civil rights information and activism. Murfreesboro’s Vaughn Street continues to honor her memory.

Mary Noailles Murfree of Murfreesboro became famous throughout the nation as “Charles Egbert Craddock,” the pen name she used in her popular stories set in the East Tennessee mountains and Cumberland Plateau. In the late nineteenth century, she was nationally famous as “the most noted writer using the southern mountains as the setting for her fiction,” according to scholar Allison Ensor.

Educated at the Nashville Female Academy and the Chegary Institute in Philadelphia, Murfree first published satires about wealthy city dwellers. As Craddock, Murfree wrote more than 25 books, including some on historical topics.

In 1884, she published Where the Battle was Fought, about the aftermath of the Battle of Stones River. When she met Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich in 1885, revealing her identity as a woman, he was said to exclaim, “But this is impossible! Impossible!”

Murfree was a prolific writer for the next 30 years, and she continued to write and publish until her death in Murfreesboro in 1922.

Emma G. Rogers Roberts became the first African American educator named to the Tennessee Teachers Hall of Fame in 1995. Her teaching career began in the rural schools of the county in 1936, and she later joined the City of Murfreesboro system.

Roberts served with great distinction and provided leadership as principal for Bradley Academy Elementary School from 1955 through 1972. She was instrumental in establishing the school’s high standards of academic excellence and its tradition of serving the wider community.

In 2001, the city recognized her contributions by naming an expansion of Bradley the Emma G. Roberts Center for the Arts and Communications.

Sarah McKelley King moved to Nashville as a young girl and later lived in Murfreesboro, where she successfully led efforts to preserve both Oaklands Mansion and the Rutherford County Courthouse. King studied at Vanderbilt University and received an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University.

She served as an advisor appointee to Congressman Albert Gore, Jr., later Vice President, and became an active member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a nationally prominent heritage organization for which she has served as state regent, curator general for the DAR’s museum in Washington, D.C., and president general.

She was honored in 1978 as Rutherford County’s Outstanding Citizen.

Rhea Seddon Murfreesboro native Rhea Seddon was one of the first female astronauts. She attended the University of California at Berkeley and later earned her doctorate of medicine from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine.

In 1978, she was among the first women ever selected as candidates for the space program. Seddon has served on board three space missions, logging over 722 hours in flight. She flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985, took part in the Columbia Spacelab Life Sciences I mission in 1991, and was payload commander for the 1993 Columbia Spacelab Life Sciences II mission. Seddon was one of four on-board scientists on both Spacelab missions.

Retiring from NASA in 1997, Seddon joined the Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville as assistant chief medical officer.

A native of Rutherford County, Myrtle Glanton Lord helped plan and see to completion the Patterson Park Community Center and Library. A graduate of Tennessee A&I State College, she pursued additional studies at Fisk University, the University of Michigan and George Peabody College.

Lord taught elementary school for 42 years, primarily at Bradley and Hobgood elementary schools. She headed a group of area residents in 1975 interested in the development of a local community center, which was completed four years later; its library was named the Myrtle Glanton Lord Library in her honor.

Lord was named Tennessee’s Most Outstanding African American Woman in 1999 and was named to the Tennessee Teachers Hall of Fame in 2002. She continues to volunteer her time to read and tell stories to local children.

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