A new children’s book set in Knoxville and written by a native Knoxvillian, “The Big Day,” honors Agnes Sadler, the first black woman to cast a vote in Knoxville, on Sept. 6, 1919. Yes, Tennessee was ahead of much of the rest of the country on women’s suffrage. In the fictionalized story, Big Mama (Agnes) rushes her young granddaughter, Tansy, through breakfast and a bath, all the while saying, “Big day ahead!” Tansy wonders why the day is so special, and soon enough learns the importance.
The author, Terry Caruthers, is a lifetime resident of the Colonial Village neighborhood in South Knoxville. The 62-year-old was in the last graduating class of Young High School in 1976. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee. She is the special projects librarian for the McClung Collection of the Knox County Public Library. In that capacity, she analyzes old Knoxville newspapers to ensure they’re preserved on microfilm. As part of the process, she flags historical articles pertaining to Knoxville that will eventually be entered into a searchable database.
Her work led her to the story that became “The Big Day.”
“I was working with the Sept. 6, 1919, Knoxville Sentinel,” Caruthers said. “I encountered the article ‘Women at Polls Early to Vote.’ It listed the first woman to cast a ballot at each ward that morning. While indexing their names, I noted that unlike the other women listed, the one from the 21st ward was recorded without an honorific title and with ‘col.’ after her name: ‘Agnes Sadler, col.’ That’s when I realized I had just discovered the first Black woman to vote in Knoxville.”
Caruthers said she imagined what a momentous day that had to be for someone like Mrs. Sadler, and that the words “It’s a big day,” formed in her head, and from that the idea of a children’s picture book emerged. Caruthers has published other children’s books and young adult novels.
“With the suffrage anniversary looming on the horizon, I thought my idea for a picture book might have merit – particularly since there were none that approached not only women’s suffrage but the voting rights of black women from the simplistic view of a child,” Caruthers said. “So, I wrote “The Big Day,” then asked Bob Booker (local civil rights icon) to read it. Once he approved it, I began sending it out to publishers. Star Bright Books then offered me a contract on the book.”
Caruthers added that despite everything she learned in college, she never knew the women of Tennessee earned the right to vote a year prior to the passage of the 19th amendment.
“I truly feel honored to reveal Agnes Sadler’s role in our city’s history,” Caruthers said, “and to reveal it to her family as well.”
The book is illustrated by multiple award-winning New Jersey artist Robert Casilla, who has over 30 children’s books to his credit.
Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent