Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Jane Rhea Bailey Byars, 1872-1948

By John G. Deal for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.

Jane Rhea Bailey Byars (15 December 1872–9 September 1948), woman suffrage advocate, was born at Locust Glen, the Washington County, Virginia, estate of her parents, Sarah Eleanor Preston Bailey and prominent attorney David Flournoy Bailey, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia. Little is known about her childhood, but according to a family genealogy she attended an academy in Abingdon. On 30 September 1896, in Sullivan County, Tennessee, she married Joseph Cloyd Byars. They lived in Bristol, Virginia, where he was an attorney and operated a stone company. They had one daughter and three sons, one of whom died in infancy. J. Cloyd Byars, as he was usually known, represented Washington and Smyth Counties and the city of Bristol in the Senate of Virginia from 1901 to 1904. She sometimes accompanied him during his unsuccessful 1908 congressional campaign against Republican incumbent Campbell Bascom Slemp.

Perhaps seeking new opportunities afterward, the family moved by 1910 to the city of Norfolk, where J. Cloyd managed a coal company. While her husband was commercially and politically active, Byars became involved in the woman suffrage movement. She was elected second vice president of the Merrimac branch of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia when it was organized with thirty-six members on 17 January 1913. It merged with the Norfolk league in May 1915, but by then, Byars and her family had returned to Bristol, where she was president of the Equal Suffrage League of Bristol from May 1915 until at least November 1916. As league president, Byars led local efforts to spread the message of woman suffrage and recruit new members. Records of the Bristol league are very sparse and provide few details about her work.

In December 1915 Byars attended the state convention of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in Richmond and served on the Committee on Resolutions. She was one of many convention delegates who met with Governor Henry Carter Stuart to persuade him to recommend that the General Assembly submit to the voters a state constitutional amendment to grant the vote to women. Despite speeches by Byars, league president Lila Hardaway Meade Valentine, novelist Mary Johnston, and other suffragists, Stuart declined the organization's request. After the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified in August 1920, Byars joined the recently organized Women's Democratic Club of Richmond and helped enroll members and conduct ballot demonstrations at local department stores for women getting ready to vote for the first time. She also attended the founding meeting of the Virginia League of Women Voters in November and joined the local Richmond league.

Byars and her family briefly lived in Petersburg and Alexandria County (after 1920 Arlington County) in the mid-1910s before they moved to Richmond later in the decade. She belonged to the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution and was active with local chapters in the various places she lived, sometimes serving as a chapter secretary and as a delegate to the annual state conferences. The family returned to Arlington County by 1921 at which time her husband began developing Alcova Heights, one of the county's earliest subdivisions. In December 1922 they hosted at their Alcova home Governor Elbert Lee Trinkle, of Wytheville (one of his former business partners and a supporter of woman suffrage), and his wife while they attended a meeting of the Southern Society of Washington. Early in the 1930s Byars participated in the society's affairs and helped organize a ball to raise money to restore Monticello.

By 1946 Byars and her husband had moved to the town of Blountville, in Sullivan County, Tennessee, to live with their daughter. Jane Rhea Bailey Byars died of a cerebral hemorrhage at her daughter's Blountville home on 9 September 1948. She was buried in the family plot on the Virginia side of East Hill Cemetery, which straddles the Virginia-Tennessee border in Bristol.

Sources consulted: birth date in Death Certificate, Sullivan County, Division of Vital Statistics, Department of Public Health, State of Tennessee; variant Dec. 1873 birth date in United States Census Schedules, Washington Co., Virginia, 1900, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Sullivan Co., Tennessee, Marriage Register, 1894–1903, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville; letters to Byars in Joseph Cloyd Byars Sr. Papers, Archives and History Division, Sullivan County Department of Archives and Tourism, Blountville, Tennessee; family information in Mary Preston Gray, The Family Tree (1980), 77; suffrage activity documented in Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia (LVA), and in Ethel Neely to [Equal Suffrage League] Secretary, 8 June 1913, Adèle Goodman Clark Papers, James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10 Dec. 1915, 26 Mar. 1916, 27 Oct. 1920; Virginian-Pilot and the Norfolk Landmark, 10 Dec. 1915; obituary in Bristol News Bulletin, 9 Sept. 1948.

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