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Beauty rises from a Virginia prison where violence against suffragists changed history

Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

LORTON, Va. -- The windows in Martin Cervantez's towering artworks never look the same, their gentle colors changing subtly with the arc of the sun.

They also never look like what they once were: tower windows from which guards watched inmates at the notorious Lorton Reformatory.

Those windows are emblematic of the change from correction facility to a haven for artists called the Workhouse Arts Center, created from the bones of the onetime reformatory in southern Fairfax County, outside the nation's capital.

The beauty of the artworks made here and the energy that accompanies their creation are a surprise in a place where ugly events once were the norm, including one so horrifying it was called the Night of Terror.

Not ringing a bell? Not surprising. But what happened here on Nov. 14, 1917 -- it was called the Occoquan Workhouse then -- changed U.S. history.

Teddy Roosevelt could never have imagined that the workhouse he had created in 1910 to help minor criminals develop useful skills would become the pivot point in the struggle to pass the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote.

 

The struggle took 72 years, the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, and unfathomable violence at Occoquan directed at champions of the cause who did nothing more than quietly picket the White House.

In answer to the banners these advocates carried that asked, "Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?" they were arrested, detained, beaten, kicked, choked, stripped naked, chained to the bars in a workhouse cell, stabbed with a stick that once carried a protest banner and force-fed until they became ill.

The unusual and intriguing art created here today could almost make you forget what happened on these grounds.

But not quite.

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