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Dispatch: Historian honors suffrage movement by portraying key Columbus leader


Since 2012, Leslie Blankenship has portrayed Columbus suffragist Belle Coit Kelton throughout Ohio. Today, her presentations are especially timely as the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote — and prepares for a new presidential election.

For 71-year-old historian Leslie Blankenship, becoming an early 20th-century suffragist is a multifaceted process.

First, there is the wardrobe. She searches antique stores and secondhand shops for hoop skirts and wide-brimmed hats, sometimes with feathers.

Then, there is learning the language of the times, such as “23 skidoo,” a popular way of telling someone to scram.

Most important, though, you have to understand the subject.

“I try to be empathetic and reach into people and tell the story,” said Blankenship, who lives in Brown Township, west of Hilliard.

That’s not hard for the Dayton native, who remembers hearing a story about her grandfather forbidding her grandmother to vote.

″(He) would take the car and go into town and vote and leave my grandmother home,” Blankenship said. “But the people on the farm next door would pick her up and take her to vote.”

It was only natural that Blankenship’s passion for history and women’s rights would lead her to impersonate someone such as Columbus suffragist Isabella “Belle” Coit Kelton. Audiences have seen Blankenship in character at historical societies, community centers and the Kelton House Museum & Garden Downtown, where she is on the education committee.

A former stop on the Underground Railroad, the Kelton House was built in 1852 by abolitionist Fernando Cortez Kelton and his wife, Sophia. Their son, Frank, married Belle Coit Kelton in 1883, and they lived in the home for several years.

Blankenship’s impersonation dates back to 2012, but celebrations over suffragists and their efforts are particularly ramping up now as the United States celebrates the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. The 19th Amendment was ratified in most states in 1919 — on June 16 in Ohio — and officially adopted on Aug. 26, 1920.

These commemorations include the Women of the Century project by the USA TODAY Network, which will highlight more than 500 women from the past 100 years as the centennial approaches.

Blankenship said presentations such as hers are especially timely as the country approaches another presidential election.

“I think people don’t realize how hard it was to get the right to vote and how much the women had to put up with,” she said. “I think they need to hear that story. We take voting for granted.”

Her subject, Kelton, was born on Nov. 26, 1855, and grew up in a house Downtown on the corner of Third and Rich streets. Her mother, Elizabeth Greer Coit, also was a suffragist, serving as president of the Columbus Women’s Suffrage Association. According to Blankenship, Kelton’s classmates teased her because her mother wore pants and was “strong-minded.”

But Kelton eventually followed in her mother’s footsteps — and worked alongside her. She was part of the first class of women to attend Ohio State University — then called the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College — in 1874. She served as president of the Franklin County Women’s Suffrage Association, which later became the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus.

She is most known for helping to organize Ohio’s first women’s suffrage parade on Aug. 27, 1912. It took place in Columbus ahead of the Ohio Constitutional Convention in September. Updates to the state constitution were being considered, and an amendment for women’s suffrage was on the ballot.

About 100,000 spectators watched approximately 5,000 women march Downtown from the intersection of Grant Avenue and Broad Street to the Ohio Statehouse. Though the amendment was defeated, Kelton lived to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment eight years later. According to her obituary, Kelton voted well into her 90s and died in 1956, days before her 101st birthday.

Wearing a maroon dress and hat — and speaking in the first person — Blankenship discussed this and more last fall with an audience at Mount Carmel Health’s von Zychlin Healthy Living Center in Franklinton. She placed Blankenship’s life in the broader context of the women’s suffrage movement, and also took a moment to lecture her listeners.

“It took us 144 years to get this political equality,” she said. “You should take advantage of it.”

Cathy Nelson, founder of Friends of Freedom Society, an organization that explores the history of the Underground Railroad, said she always learns something new from such presentations.

“This is probably my fifth time seeing Leslie, and I come all the time because, as you can tell, she was so knowledgeable,” said Nelson, 67, of the Far East Side.

Also in the audience was Kelton House docent and former manager Lanna Blue, another longtime fan.

“Leslie is an amazing woman,” Blue said. “She researches these things so carefully and then presents them so well. It’s like discovering a whole new person each time.”

Blankenship, who also is chairwoman of the education committee at the Franklinton Historical Society and a member of the Ohio Local History Alliance and Friends of Freedom Society, is modest about her talent.

“I’ve never taken acting in college,” she said. “I was too shy and I really don’t like public speaking either. But I’ve gotten used to it.”

Blankenship graduated from Southwest Missouri State with a degree in education and took graduate coursework in history at Ohio State. She went on to work as a writer at CAS (formerly Chemical Abstracts Service) for nearly 40 years. After retiring, she immersed herself in the local history scene.

Before portraying Kelton, she impersonated Mary Brown, wife of Ohio-born abolitionist John Brown, because she was touched by her story.

And one time, just to stretch herself, Blankenship tried a role outside her comfort zone.

“I played a woman who was a segregationist, just to try it,” she said. “But I flipped her personality a little bit to try to make her not as bad as she was.”

Kelton is a better fit for Blankenship, who admires the suffragist’s tenacity.

“She was out there on the front lines the whole time and she had four kids,” Blankenship said. “She (also) had to take care of her family.”

Blankenship will continue to portray Kelton throughout 2020, making appearances in March at both the Powell United Methodist Church and Southeast Ohio History Center in Athens.

And central Ohio will be celebrating the anniversary of the 19th Amendment in many ways. Both the Kelton House and League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Columbus, for example, are hosting programs in the spring.

Nina Thomas, manager of the Westerville History Center and Museum, said the organization will provide a relevant talk in May, and host the Ohio Chautauqua, featuring a women’s suffrage theme, in June.

Thomas also is a fan of Blankenship, who presented a program for the organization last year.

“It was just inspiring,” Thomas said. “It really encouraged me to want to fight for my right to vote and continue that legacy. … We don’t really realize what these women went through, the torture that they went through emotionally and physically just to get us the chance to go to a ballot and vote for who we want to vote for.”