Workhouse Arts Center unveils exhibit honoring suffragists imprisoned on its property in 1917

Virginia

2020 is the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote.

LORTON, Va. (WDVM) — The Workhouse Arts Center is celebrating the official opening of its Lucy Burns Museum, named for one of the 72 suffragists who were jailed at the D.C. Correctional Facility — now the Workhouse Arts Center — in 1917.

2020 is the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote. The museum’s exhibit was curated and is managed by former anthropologist and Director of Education at the National History Museum Laura McKie, who took on the monumental task of portraying the dark history that occurred on the property in 2012.

“After I retired from the Smithsonian I was looking for something to do,” McKie said. The gig has kept her busy; she’s been volunteering 70 hours a week for the past year. The Workhouse locked-in official funding for building renovations and the exhibit about two-and-a-half years ago.

“Over the years we ended up with, I feel, an exhibit, which does great honor to the 72 women who were here and were willing to give their life for the right to vote,” said McKie.

Lucy Burns and Alice Paul co-founded the Women’s National Party. Alice Paul authored the Equal Rights Amendment. She didn’t serve time at the D.C. Correctional Facility. Burns and Paul became friends while they were imprisoned in England for protesting. McKie says the English suffragist protests were violent (one suffragist died when she was trampled by a horse during a protest); Burns and Paul are the reason American suffragist protests were peaceful.

When the prison shut down in 2001, an employee dug through the trash to recover many artifacts, like signs, prisoner artwork, and farming tools. The Workhouse Arts Center opened in 2008, and Irma Clifton founded the Workhouse Museum and History Committee shortly thereafter. Clifton died of pancreatic cancer in August 2019. She never got to see the exhibit she made possible.

In 1917, 72 suffragists were imprisoned for obstructing a D.C. sidewalk during peaceful protests. During their 60-day sentences, some went on hunger strikes and were force-fed multiple times a day in their cells. McKie says the women lived alongside male prisoners. Their names and sentences are inked inside a D.C. prison log that Clifton rescued.

McKie says she feels she owes a lot to Clifton and wishes she’d lived to see the finished product. She hopes the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment and new exhibits like the Workhouse Arts Center’s will send more people to the polls for future presidential elections.

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