Eugenia S. Dunlap Potts, 1839-1912, suffragist and Lost Cause advocate

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

Eugenia S. Dunlap Potts had a stellar career as a journalist, a businesswoman, a poet and prose writer, a musician, a clubwoman and philanthropist. Her writings and club activities revealed her as a progressive - a fierce advocate for women's economic and political independence - and a Southern white conservative seeking new narratives in the mythology of the "Lost Cause." A member then elected officer of the Lexington chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), Potts worked closely with Ida Withers Harrison (president of her UDC chapter) and Laura Clay to support the goals of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association.

Eugenia S. Dunlap was born April 14, 1839 or 1840, the eldest of six children of Nancy "Nannie" Elizabeth Jennings and George Washington Dunlap of Lancaster, Kentucky. Her father was a U.S. Congressman and a judge who participated in the peace conference to try and avert the Civil War. The community of Lancaster celebrated her mother for her charity work during the war and for the school she conducted in her home. Eugenia graduated from Franklin Female Institute in Tennessee and continued her musical training and study of French at a school in Philadelphia. On September 9, 1861, Eugenia married a widower, Dr. Richard Potts (1828-1866), and traveled with him as he traveled through the South as Assistant Surgeon and Medical Purveyor for Department #2 of the Confederate Regular Army. Their one-year-old daughter Minnie died in 1863 while they were libing in Mobile, Alabama. Their son, George Dunlap Potts (1864-1908) was born while they were stationed in Montgomery. Dr. Potts was paroled in 1865 and practiced medicine in Memphis, Tenn. where he died of typhoid fever on July 15, 1866.

A young widow and mother, Potts moved back to Kentucky with her son and taught at her mother's school in Lancaster. She also began supporting herself with writing - the first of her books (published in 1874) was "Song of Lancaster" a local history written as an epic poem in homage to Longfellow's "Hiawatha." At the end of the book, she appended a list of all the Confederate soldiers from her hometown. With her talent in composing and arranging music as well as playing the piano, Potts became a popular participant in patriotic celebrations, including those associated with neo-Confederate commemorations for Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

She worked in 1879 for her brother Woodford "Woodie" G. Dunlap when he owned the local newspaper, The Lancaster Enterprise. When her sister Mary and husband Judge George Denny moved to Lexington in 1884 with their five young children, Potts went to live with them at 505 South Mill Street. Nevertheless she continued to visit Lancaster regularly, offering up her musical talents at church meetings. Her first newspaper published in Lexington came out in the fall of 1890 - The Lexington Record - which served to chronicle the good deeds being done by charitable organizations and individuals. Her January 1901 issue described the problem of street urchins in Lexington (white boys playing in the busy downtown streets during the day) and the need for a free kindergarten. The following issue praised the action undertaken by philanthropist Howard Gratz who organized a kindergarden in one of the Industrial school rooms with Mary Hamilton as the teacher. She also announced the intentions of the local W.C.T.U. chapter in fundraising to build another free kindergarten.

The February 1891 issue of The Lexington Record included a column, "Equal Rights Champions," in which she praised the work of Laura Clay on behalf of working women everywhere.

   Among the faithful in our great band of Lexington philanthropists is a woman whose every pulse throbs with Anguished sympathy for womankind, whose heart and mind devote their mighty strength to breaking the chains from her sisters, whose nervous force is tried to the utmost tension lest she fail. It is to her that we bread winners owe the wondrous revolution in the social code which permits the Southern woman to go out from her home and earn her living. She and her co workers have made it possible for women to be clerks, type-writers, merchants, - aye, something besides the household drudge and the needle’s slave. Read the literature she scatters broadcast; give her a respectful hearing; study the property laws she would correct so as to enable you to hold the pitiful sums you work for, and the day may come within our generation when in the evening, if not in the meridian of life, Laura B. Clay may sit with hands folded and look triumphantly upon the blessings she has wrought.
   With woman’s innate reserve, she faces the multitudes with the courage of conviction. With all of a Southern woman’s shrinking delicacy, she presses on, conscious that innovations are opposed, that Ephraim will cling to his idol of ignorant submission. A Kentucky woman, with the boasted blue blood of the Bluegrass heraldry in her veins, she turns from the social triumphs to which her native gifts entitle her, to the disputed arena of woman’s true place under the laws of the Commonwealth. Do we, her sisters, realize her motives and her aims?

In 1891 Potts was a founding member of the Lexington Press Association, serving as treasurer. That year she quit production of her monthly summary of charity works in Lexington and took over the work of starting up a new publication: the Illustrated Kentuckian: A Journal of Art, Literature, Education, Religion, Society, Sports and General Information. This monthly journal included features of local whites who were of interest due to their adherence to the highest social code, and subscribers were offered a Confederate sourvenir edition (containing 130 portraits of Confederate officers) "suitable as a keepsake by every Kentuckian." Perhaps this track record of success in journalism, and her championing of working women in her writings, was why she was selected to give the speech on the changing nature of the New Woman emerging in the 1890s.

In 1893 Potts gave an address at the Women's Building for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago - her topic was "Woman's Work in Kentucky." The speech, published in the commemorative program, provided a list of respected white clubwomen in Kentucky contextualized within their connections to revered pioneer and military families. She also spent time on propping up the myth of congenial race relations in Kentucky during slavery times. She waxed eloquently using specific examples of how older African-Americans of her day, appropriately servile and thankful for their place of dependency, were more trustworthy than were the current era's civil rights leaders forming protests against white supremacy. This emphasis on the Kentucky version of the "Lost Cause" is followed soon afterwards with praise for the leaders of the suffrage movement (mentioning specifically Josephine K. Henry, Mary B. Clay, Laura Clay), charity workers, entrepreneurs, and those who were leading the efforts in educational reform. She confidently assured her audience that times had changed and so had the men in Kentucky. "Men are beginning to discriminate between usefulness and unwomanliness. ... We have no wish to be manlike. We care not to lose our right of pleasing. We do not ask liberty of our individuality. Fathers and brothers are helping us, and husbands do not all hold back."

Potts spoke at Kentucky Day on November 16th at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. Likely, she gave a speech on Kentucky women's work and her whitewashed version of Kentucky race relations as she had done in 1893. Booker T. Washington, a frequent visitor to Kentucky, gave his speech on the opening day in which he posited vocational education for African-Americans served as a more valuable component for economic security than equal political or social power. The message that Potts brought would have been considered progressive even as it solidified the policies and customs of racial segregation.

By 1897 the several different women's groups working as Memorial Associations for the celebration and reconstruction of the Confederate history of the state came together to form the Kentucky Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Lexington's chapter (No. 12) chartered October 19, 1895, was one of the earliest formed in the nation, Eugenia Dunlap Potts took a leadership role quickly. In 1899 she gave a report as chair of the Historical Hall Committee of the Lexington U.D.C. Chapter and how she was working to build a Confederate museum similar to what already existed in Richmond, Virginia and New Orleans, Louisiana. She "enumerated many relics in her own possession and also of General John Boyd which the group hoped "that these valuable historical articles may be preserved to the future historian and generations as object lessons. (Lost Cause, Nov. 1899, 62)"

In that year's final issue of journal The Lost Cause, suffragist and elected member of the Lexington school board Ida Withers Harrison announced that she had requested the Lexington Board of Education to have the birthday of Robert E. Lee celebrated in the public schools and to hange a large picture of him in each of the school buildings. "The birthday of that ideal soldier and Christian gentleman was observed in our schools last January [1899] for the first time; the fact that some of the children had never heard of him proved that such action was timely. Think what an influence on character may be exerted by holding up before the boys and girls once a year the life of so good and so great a man! (Lost Cause, Dec. 1899, 83)” The Daughters already had gained a school holiday for the patriotic displays on Decoration Day in May and on Flag Day (April 25) Ida Withers Harrison, U.D.C. State Historian in 1903, gave a speech as the Lexington Chapter presented five Confederate flags to the white public schools. The group would often lobby their local boards to get school holidays for parades by the Confederate veterans and Kentucky militia during reunions or other commemorative events.

Potts and Harrison worked together during the tumultuous months in 1901 in which Lexington school suffrage law was being repealed. As a member of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) Executive Committee of 100 representing the Lexington Women for the Retention of School Suffrage, Potts had contacted Kentucky Senator J. Embry Allen personally to ascertain how he might be dissuaded from his role in revoking Kentucky's partial suffrage law for women. His replies to her were archived in the KERA documents within the Laura Clay papers at the University of Kentucky. Her letters to him are not in the collection, however, her plea was clear from his replies to her. She had reminded him of his role as the military leader in the state militia and connected this to her work as a Daughter of the Confederacy during the various parades and events for his brigade's celebrations of Kentucky Confederate past. Most recently in Lexington, a reunion of Confederate veterans and their families at the Elks Fair in August 1901, with tables spread under the large trees south of the Floral Hall near the racetrack and the Daughters of the Confederacy serving the guests. Potts must also have written about how women's rights relied on the male legislators' chivalry and to do the right thing in moving women's rights forward. He complained to her that his work as military leader and political champion for women's higher education, e.g., the recent agreement after years of KERA lobbying to pay for a woman's dormitory at the University of Kentucky, had not been fully appreciated. He wrote that he was disappointed that no one from her several groups had written to thank him for his efforts. His letters sought to convince her of his duty in revoking woman suffrage in Kentucky since he had heard from too many white women acquaintances of the insults and degradations caused by the behaviors of African-American women in the streets and at the polls. In fact, he emphasized, there were simply too many black women voting in school board elections and this political agency kept white women from even wanting the right to vote at all. We might surmise that the race-baiting by the Kentucky Senator convinced Mrs. Potts to back away from her efforts to keep the suffrage law on the books. She was likely mollified when the 1912 woman suffrage in Kentucky was reinstated for voting in school-related elections, but with the caveat of passing a literacy test.

Meanwhile, Potts continued in her charity work for children. Serving as the Secretary of the Childrens' Home in Lexington, she visited the "Neighborhood House" in Louisville in 1900 to learn new ways of managing settlement homes for poor whites. Her activism was heralded in the newspapers and the Louisville Courier-Journal asserted that "Mrs. Potts has been instrumental in building up the Lexington Childrens' Home until it is one of the largest institutions of the kind in the State." By 1906 the U.D.C. Lexington Chapter had inaugurated the committee to fundraise for the erection of a monument for the Confederate officer John Hunt Morgan, and as the club's historian Potts had much to offer as the campaign quickly got underway.

In 1908 the Lexington Leader published a long essay by her on the historic homes of Lancaster, Ky. Her work as a historian expanded as she served as the U.D.C. Lexington chapter's historian from 1903 on, and in 1909 three of her books were published:

  • Historic Papers on the Causes of the Civil War - a bound copy of four speeches she read before the Lexington Chapter of the U.D.C.: “The Old South” (February 14, 1909), “Slavery” (March 14, 1909), “Secession” (April 11, 1909), and “The Southern Confederacy” (May 11, 1909). In these speeches we find a most eloquent argument for white supremacy, white women's role as conservator of Southern honor, and the exceptionalism of Kentucky race relations compared to other former slave states. Many similar statements can be found in schoolbooks, e.g., "A History of Kentucky," written by Elizabeth Shelby Kinkead first in 1896 and revised in 1909.
  • Idle Hour Stories - a book of short stories and poems dedicated to the memory of her son, George who had died in 1908.
  • Stories for Children: Part I. Victor's victory: Part II.

A close study of these books shows why Potts was so successful in her day and time - and why the rapidly growing local clubs of conservative white women would use her books for readings in their club meetings or in school rooms. The prose is interestingly crafted, and for her white audience the content builds on cultural icons of the Lost Cause, especially the Southern ideal white woman. As a fulsome part of the literary fashion trend of this era, however, these books include a different twist on the portrayal of cultured white women in post-bellum Kentucky. For example, Potts highlighted in the short story "The Girl Farmers" the positive contributions that an educated and enterprising woman could make in the faltering economy of the day. She makes clear the role of the household manager and how to successfully work with black farmworkers. Her heroines of this story are reading journals on domestic science and about the latest farming techniques, and they emphasize that they pay a higher wage to their farmworkers than do their neighbors in order to prevent racial strife. This is a romantic view of her world filled with racist violence and misogynistic commercial agents, but the message ultimately lands: women can use their education wisely to contribute positively to the larger economy, maintain decorum and move the country in a progressive direction.

Short notices in the newspapers after 1908 indicated that Potts was becoming ill. Her sister Mary was an invalid as well as was her brother-in-law Judge George Denny. Their brother, Woodie Dunlap, moved in to the house on South Mill with them while he worked as the superintendent of the Pepper Distillery on the outskirts of town. Nevertheless, Potts remained active: at the Kentucky U.D.C. convention in Berea in 1911, she was elected chaplain. Potts likely participated in the parade for the grand event on October 18, 1911, in the Fayette County Courthouse plaza. Five years of fundraising by the U.D.C. and with a substantial grant from the Kentucky legislature, thousands cheered as Confederate veterans, Kentucky militia, children in military garb along with women in the neo-Confederate colors of white and red attended the unveiling of a bronze monument portraying a heroic version of the Confederate officer John Hunt Morgan on horseback.

Just before her death Potts continued to work on her autobiographical work, "A Kentucky Girl in Dixie," though it was never published. It can be found in manuscript form at Transylvania University in Lexington, comprised of edited passages of Potts' diaries from 1859-1865 as her family moved across the South to evade the Union Army, news articles, and transcriptions of her correspondence. Coming out of a meeting of the U.D.C. in the Confederate Room at the Fayette County Courthouse in early January 1912, Potts slipped on the marble steps outside and fell. Now over 70 years of age, she broke her hip and became hospitalized. Friends from Lancaster threw her a "Valentine Shower" on February 14th, and as the newspaper social columnist reported "this popular woman is ever bright and cheerful..."

Potts died at St. Joseph's Hospital in Lexington on February 29, 1912, and her funeral was led by the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington where she had long been a member. She was buried in the Lancaster Cemetery in the Dunlap lot near her parents. A state historical marker (# 1344) was erected in Lancaster in 1970 to celebrate her work as an author, however there are some errors and omissions in the narrative. It is hoped that this will be rectified in the Kentucky Historical Society's ExploreKYHistory narrative for the sign - and added to a woman suffrage history collection of markers in the app.

*** Resources ***


This essay supports the evergrowing list of biosketches for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project. To see all the KWSP biosketches, visit http://networks.h-net.org/kentucky-woman-suffrage-biosketches.