Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Annie S. Barna Whitner, 1870–1960
By Brent Tarter for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.
Annie S. Barna Whitner (1870–1 November 1960), woman suffrage activist, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and was the daughter of Annie Staton Barna and Thomas Marion Barna. Her middle name possibly was Staton, like her mother. Her father was a Confederate veteran, businessman, and agricultural implement manufacturer who moved the family to North Carolina, to Colorado, and to Georgia. Probably as a result of the frequent moves, little is preserved about her childhood and education, but her mother evidently died sometime in the second half of the 1870s. On 25 March 1891 in Atlanta, Georgia, she married James Harrison Whitner, a civil engineer and native of South Carolina. They initially lived in Atlanta, moved to Birmingham, Alabama, before 1900, and then early in the twentieth century moved to the city of Roanoke, where he was an officer of the Virginia Bridge and Iron Company. They prospered and were able to purchase an estate just outside the nearby town of Salem. The Whitners had no children, but they adopted a son (possibly a relative of her father) and the daughter of her brother after the death of the girl's mother. Whitner's father retired to Roanoke and died there in May 1918, and her brother also settled in Roanoke and lived with her during a period of poor health prior to his death in December 1920.
Whitner was likely present at the end of November 1911 when Virginia novelist Mary Johnston and Lila Hardaway Meade Valentine, president of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, gave addresses in Roanoke advocating woman suffrage. A few days later about thirty people founded a local chapter of the league, which was among the earliest in the state, and Whitner was elected a vice president. On 13 September 1913 she was the founding president of the Roanoke County Equal Suffrage League. Its initial forty members grew rapidly to seventy-five in the first year. Residents of Salem formed their own league in May 1913, and in November another group established the fourth local suffrage association, the Roanoke Equal Franchise League, which by July 1916 had become the area's largest with 1,100 members. Almost none of the records of the county league, of which Whitner was president until 1920, survive. Nevertheless, her local involvement in support of woman suffrage is reasonably well documented because the activities of all the area organizations were so entwined.
In December 1913 Whitner and four other Virginia suffragists attended a two-week suffrage school in Washington, D.C. The following April she spoke to one of the weekly meetings of the Roanoke Equal Suffrage League. In addition to speaking whenever possible to promote woman suffrage, Whitner and other Roanoke area women joined suffragists elsewhere in the state circulating petitions for people to sign urging their senators and delegates in the General Assembly to support a constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote. Whitner and Lucinda Lee Terry, a vice president of the Roanoke City league, persuaded Roanoke Delegate R. Holman Willis to support woman suffrage, and he was one of only thirteen delegates to vote in favor of the amendment in March 1914.
In a short article entitled "Women and War" that Whitner wrote for the November 1914 issue of Virginia Suffrage News, three months after World War I had begun, she adduced the war as among the reasons why suffragists should "re-consecrate ourselves to our great work." Whitner predicted, "If we women lift our voices loud enough and long enough in protest and appeal they will be heard around the world, and in time women will share with men the power which shapes the fate of nations. And then that 'hell upon earth'—war—will cease, and peace will reign."
Whitner was chair for the Equal Suffrage League's Sixth Congressional District in 1916 and regularly attended the league's state conventions. The 1916 state convention elected her a vice president, and she held that office until women won the right to vote in 1920. Whitner was also a Virginia delegate to the conventions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1914 to 1917. She was one of several suffragists who spoke at the March 1916 Republican State Convention to appeal for its endorsement for woman suffrage, which the convention granted. Whitner joined other prominent leaders of the state suffrage movement in disavowing the confrontational tactics of the National Woman's Party. In March 1917 she led a suffrage school in Roanoke, reportedly attracting many women who had not had a previous interest in voting rights for women.
During World War I, Whitner and many other leading Virginia suffragists actively supported home front work. She was chair of the local Red Cross committee and was a member of the council of defense. Some local suffrage leagues fell into inactivity during the war. The league in Salem may have been one, but Whitner reorganized it in April 1919. That summer she hosted at her home a meeting of the Roanoke and Salem Equal Suffrage Leagues to celebrate signing up more than 2,200 women to support the cause. At the November 1919 state convention of the Equal Suffrage League, Whitner chaired the resolutions committee.
When Congress debated whether to submit the proposed Nineteenth Amendment to the states for ratification, Roanoke-area suffragists repeatedly and without success tried to persuade Representative James Pleasant Woods and Senators Thomas Staples Martin and Carter Glass to vote for it. Whitner published her letter to the senators and their replies. In December 1919 she and Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon, a paid agent of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, together canvased Roanoke County to sign up people to support ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Whitner also supported the league's work during 1920 to hold citizenship schools to assist women to register and vote if the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified before the general election that year, and reported with pleasure to state headquarters in the spring of 1920 that the local Democratic Party convention had elected several women to serve as delegates to the state party convention. In September 1920 she was reportedly the first woman at her precinct to pay her poll tax and register, although local newspapers did not report on any of the Roanoke area suffragists when they cast their first votes on 2 November 1920.
In the autumn of 1920 Whitner was named to the organizing committee of the Virginia League of Women Voters, and she and Valentine made the first financial contributions toward its work. Both before and after her husband died on 10 February 1926, Whitner was active in other civic organizations, as many other Virginia suffragists were or had been. She was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and of the South View Civic Improvement League in her part of Roanoke County. Whitner was also a member of the woman's division of the Association of Commerce in Roanoke early in the 1920s and took an interest in having a nurse from the Red Cross assist the county medical inspector after the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919. She formed and was the first president of the Roanoke County Woman's Club, which joined the Virginia Federation of Women's Clubs in 1923. Whitner served as chair of the federation's committees on international relations and on education and was remembered fondly many years later for her enthusiastic reports to the federation's state conventions.
Annie S. Barna Whitner died of pneumonia at her home in Roanoke County on 1 November 1960 and was buried in East Hill Cemetery in Salem.
Birth year of 1870 reported in United States Census Schedule, Norfolk Co., Va., 1870 (3 months old on 31 Aug.), Edgecombe Co., N.C., 1880 (age 10 on 16 June), and Jefferson Co., Ala., 1900 (Feb. 1870), Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (NARA); self-reported variant birth date of 9 February 1871 in passport application, 31 May 1910, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, NARA; Fulton Co., Georgia, Marriage Register Book G, 411, Georgia Archives, Morrow, Ga.; Anderson (S.C.) Intelligencer, 2 Apr. 1891; letters and annual reports in Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia (LVA), Richmond; some letters in Adèle Clark Papers, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; Virginia Suffrage News 1 (Nov. 1914): 10 (quotation); Etta Belle Walker Northington, A History of the Virginia Federation of Women's Clubs, 1907–1957 (1957), 115; Death Certificate, Roanoke Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, LVA (with death date and questioned 9 Feb. 1869 birth date); obituaries in Roanoke World-News, 1 Nov. 1960 (portrait), and Roanoke Times, 2 Nov. 1960.