To mark the centennial of the landmark legislation that granted women the right to vote, WESTAF (Western States Arts Federation), a regional nonprofit arts service organization dedicated to strengthening the financial, organizational, and policy infrastructure of the arts in the West, commissioned the creation of a mural related to Women’s Suffrage in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. The mural, created by local artist Adrienne “Adri” Norris (@afrotriangle), is located at the Montbello Branch of the Denver Public Library on Albrook Drive. The library, a public epicenter of knowledge and cultural memory, as the site for this work creates a dynamic dialogue with its subject matter as it centers an overlooked history. The artwork’s content challenges and expands the mainstream narrative of Women’s Suffrage and the passing of the 19th Amendment to include the larger and more inclusive story of the fight for voting rights for Black, Hispanic, and minority communities.
Rendered in sepia tones, a historical map of the United States serves as the central image of the mural panel installed to the left of the library entrance, which tells the story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the Western United States leading up to the passing of the 19th Amendment. The artwork begins with reference to the 15th Amendment, the ratification of which gave men of color the right to vote in 1870. Below this introduction, Norris traces the reaction to this amendment and the resulting emergence of Women’s Suffrage movements, including Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Women’s Party. The map is surrounded by four portraits highlighting significant figures in the quest for women’s suffrage, including Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil and women’s rights leader who eventually founded Bethune-Cookman University; Elizabeth Piper Ensley, a Coloradan who played a major role in women gaining the right to vote in Colorado before the passing of the 19th Amendment; Adelina Otero-Warren, the first Hispanic woman to run for U.S. Congress; and Dolores Armijo, the New Mexico state librarian who fought and won a gender discrimination lawsuit after the governor sought to replace her. In 1893, decades before the passing of the 19th Amendment, Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to enact women’s suffrage by popular referendum. The 19th Amendment, which gave all citizens of the United States, regardless of sex, the right to vote, officially passed in 1919 and was ratified in 1920.
The mural’s narrative continues on the right side of the library’s entrance with an exploration of suffrage movements after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Norris depicts scenes of activists who fought against Jim Crow and similar “Juan Crow” laws used to prevent Black and Hispanic Americans from voting. Women of color served at the forefront of movements aimed to end these forms of voter suppression. Once again, the portraits of four prominent figures integral to efforts to combat these injustices are featured: Fannie Lou Hamer, who helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus; Gretchen McRae, the first Black woman to make the ballot by running for City Council in Colorado Springs in 1943; Polly Baca, the first Latina and minority woman elected to the Colorado State Senate; and Vilma Socorro Martinez, a leading advocate for civil rights for Hispanic Americans. Continuing to the right of the portraits, the mural features the passing of the 24th Amendment, which made poll taxes illegal in federal elections, thereby expanding voter access among historically disenfranchised groups, including communities of color. However, as Norris mentions in the mural’s text, “ID laws, voter roll purges, shorter early voting periods, limited mail-in voting, fewer polling places, gerrymandering, mega districts, and at-large elections are some of the more recent forms of voter suppression.” The final images of the mural coalesce poignantly at the site of the voter ballot return box installed outside the library entrance, functioning as a rousing reminder of the continuing fight for equitable voting practices and a call to action to remain vigilant about one’s rights and to vote accordingly.
As efforts to combat voter suppression continue in the present day, this project serves as a celebration of the efforts of our forebears and an inspiration to continue their legacy in the quest for a more just voting system. While the mural was designed as a site-specific installation, its story holds local, regional, and national significance.
The images featured in this mural were created through a combination of hand-painting and digital rendering, then transferred to vinyl to ensure the outdoor installation’s longevity. This project was made possible through a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Federal Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. Many thanks to the Denver Public Library staff and the District 11 Office of Stacie Gilmore for their partnership on this project.
Visit the artist’s website: https://afrotriangledesigns.com/
To learn more about the project and engage with the artwork, visit www.publicartarchive.org/westaf-womens-suffrage-mural-project.