It’s funny to imagine what the people of Macon County must have thought about Lassie Kelly. Born in 1881, she was considered a “keen leader” in Franklin and an actively engaged member of the community until her death in 1963.
Kelly served in World War I, was one of the first women in North Carolina to pass the bar exam and practice law, the first woman in the state to be appointed as a United States district attorney. United and was the first woman in the country to serve as the commanding officer of an American Legion post.
These are pretty important credentials for a woman living in western North Carolina today, let alone in a time when women were just getting the franchise.
“I think it was probably a little strange for some people at first who had never been exposed to it – a woman with a law degree serving in the Navy. Maybe some thought it was out of place, but at the same time, other people probably admired her and were very proud that she was local. She came from the mountains and did so much to help this region, ”said Sydney Giaquinto, Franklin High School 2019 graduate.
Giaquinto had the opportunity to learn more about Lassie Kelly and even represent the historical figure when she became involved in the Macon County Women’s History Trail project. A committee formed out of the Macon County Folk Heritage Association, the Women’s History Trail aims to bring more attention to the forgotten contributions of women.
Kelly’s contributions are honored with a plaque placed at American Legion Station 108 in Franklin – a post she helped organize and where she served as Commanding Officer. At the plaque dedication ceremony in 2019, Giaquinto was the guest of honor disguised as Lassie Kelly during WWI. The authentic Chief Yeoman uniform she donned was made by Women’s History Trail member Kathryn Sellers.
“When I was asked to represent Lassie, it was fun to research and find out more about her,” she said. “She served in WWI as the Yeoman leader – I didn’t even know what that meant and had to search.”
Before World War I, women were not allowed to serve in the military – some dressed as men to serve while others served as frontline nurses – but as progressive social movements pushed forward women’s rights, women had more opportunities to serve their country. Kelly enlisted as a Yeoman woman in the US Navy in April 1918.
The “Yeomanettes” helped the Navy cope with a severe shortage of clerical staff and primarily performed secretarial duties – translating, fingerprinting, recruiting and writing. Kelly has held senior positions in the offices of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt and Admiral William Sims.
“I felt so much pride in wearing this uniform and being greeted by American Legion veterans,” said Giaquinto. “I was treated like a celebrity even though I’m only 5’4″ and Lassie was over 6 feet tall. Everyone wanted to take a picture with her.
Kelly’s contributions did not end after the war; she returned home to Macon County and helped form the American Legion and represented Franklin’s post at the Legion National Convention held in New Orleans in 1922.
In August 1917, Kelly was one of two women licensed to practice law in the state out of a pool of 40 successful applicants. According to a December 1918 ad in The Mountaineer, Kelly was appointed Assistant United States Attorney with a salary of $ 2,000 per year – adjusted for inflation which would be around $ 38,000 in 2020.
“She left on Saturday to take up her post and may have her seat in Asheboro, NC.
She also opened Kelly’s Tea Room on Main Street in Franklin in 1929. Looking at the newspaper advertisements of that time, it is clear that the tea room was well used in the community for meetings, speakers and the like. special events. She was also a court reporter in the West District for 45 years.
As an avid writer and reader, Giaquinto said she was also impressed with Kelly’s efforts as a teenager to start a library in Macon County. Then, in 1955, she raised $ 10,000 to build a new Franklin Library on Phillips Street.
“She was instrumental in starting the library here and in expanding reading possibilities for mountain people,” she said. “As a writer myself, I appreciate that knowing that it was a huge issue that she was championing at the time.”
As for her direct involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, Kelly was a founding member and sitting secretary of the NC League of Women Voters.
When she died in 1963, the tribute paid to her in The Franklin Press described her as “honest and fiercely loyal; its faults were exaggerations of its virtues.
Meanwhile, a young Giaquinto, who is now in her second year at Western Carolina University, is excited to vote for the first time in a presidential election this fall.
“The upcoming election will be the first presidential election in which I have been able to vote, and I am excited. The 19th Amendment for me, personally, means women finally have a voice, ”she said. “I was talking to my mom recently and wondering if I was born in the 18th century and wanted to speak in Congress or do the things that I have already done at this point in my life, would I have been? able to. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have done it.