Cornelia Crenshaw

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2019

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Cornelia Crenshaw

Cornelia Crenshaw was born in Millington on March 25, 1916. At the age of 5, she moved to Memphis where she lived until her death in 1994. She attended Booker T. Washington High School and LeMoyne-Owen College. One of the few African American professional women working outside the field of education, Cornelia was employed for 27 years by the Memphis Housing Authority. She was an advocate for workers’ rights to unionism. It was a stance that got her fired from the MHA. She then sued, unsuccessfully, under the new Civil Rights Bill of 1964.

After she lost that job at the age of 49, Cornelia became a full-time community activist. Noted for her stylish clothing and hats, she regularly attended City Council meetings and usually spoke. Well before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to popularize the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, Cornelia Crenshaw was already working to collect food and other necessities for the strikers’ families. It was she who told the union about Robert Worsham’s poem “I Am A Man,” which then became the heralded slogan of the Strike. She was the only African American woman on the strategy team headed by Rev. James Lawson. She walked in the daily protests downtown and was gassed while participating in the first march led by Dr. King.

Cornelia was well ahead of her time in recognizing institutional racism. In 1969 she protested an increase in garbage collection fees that brought no increased salary to the workers by refusing to pay her Memphis, Light, Gas, & Water bill. After MLGW turned off her utilities, she continued to live in her well-appointed home without gas or electricity for ten more years until she was forced to abandon it. Because of her protest, however, MLGW began to accept partial payments on monthly bills, thus allowing customers to spread out any unusually high monthly bills.

Cornelia Crenshaw’s long-time advocacy was officially recognized when the City Council named the Memphis Public Library Branch at 536 Vance in her honor.

Estelle Axton

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2019

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Estelle Axton

Estelle Axton co-founded Stax Records with her brother, James Stewart. The name Stax itself is a combination of STewart and AXton. Stax became renowned as a leader in soul music, rivaling Detroit and the Motown sound in the 1960’s.

Born in Middleton, TN, Estelle began her career as a schoolteacher in Memphis, married Everett Axton, raised their two children at home for ten years, then worked as a teller in a bank.

When her brother needed money to develop a record company, she persuaded her husband they should remortgage their house and joined her brother as a full partner at the newly named Stax Records in 1959. Together they bought the old Capital Theater in an African-American neighborhood now known as Soulsville, and turned it into a recording studio and a record shop. Her brother ran the recording studio and she ran the Satellite Record Shop, which attracted local talent and provided money in sparse recording times.

“The shop was a workshop for Stax Records,” she explained. “When a record would hit on another label, we would discuss what made it sell.” Musicians recalled Estelle as the one who encouraged them and sometimes made her brother sign them up.

Together with her brother she was involved in finding and promoting the careers of artists such as Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Booker T & the MGs, and Isaac Hayes, who said of her:
“Estelle was a very generous woman. She was generous with her time, with her counsel, with her advice. I think she was responsible for the racial harmony at Stax. Mrs. Axton, you didn’t feel any back-off from her, no differentiation that you were black and she was white. . . Being in a town where that attitude was plentiful, she just made you feel secure. She was like a mother to us all.”
The musicians and singers at Stax called her “Lady A.”

“Were it not for her, there’s no way Stax could have become what it became,” said David Porter, a songwriting powerhouse who wrote many Stax hits, such as Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” and “Hold On, I’m Coming.” “She had a positive spirit toward the acts in that community and any young kids who came in there with aspirations. There’s no way that Stax could have become Stax without the positive energy that this lady contributed,” he said.

After leaving Stax Records in 1970, she founded the Memphis Songwriters Association and co-founded the Memphis Music Association, which became the umbrella organization for all Memphis music.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened in 2003, and she lived to see it, dying in 2004 at age 85. In 2007 she herself was posthumously awarded a Grammys Trustee Award, given to “individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording.”

Lois DeBerry

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2018

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Lois DeBerry

Born in Memphis on May 5, 1945, Lois DeBerry grew up in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of South Memphis and graduated from Hamilton High School. During the 1960’s she took part in the Civil Rights Movement, despite her parents’ objections. She participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and heard Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She was part of the Student Sit-In Movement against segregation in public places, and marched the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Dr. King in 1965, publicizing the lack of voting rights for African-Americans. She said later in an interview with Linda T. Wynn, “Every time I would read the paper, I would get mad about what was going on…I felt that I had to be there to make my contribution….”
She graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College with a B.A. degree in elementary education in 1971 and began to work as a counselor for a federally funded program in Memphis housing projects as a link between families and schools.

She soon realized she was a token African-American as well as one of the few women in a program that wasn’t doing its job to motivate black children to stay in school. She tried calling on a few male politicians with her doubts and, getting no response, she felt frustrated and didn’t know what to do.

She had a chance conversation with an older African-American woman when picking up her car from a repair shop during this time and one thing the woman told her was, “Baby, the only way you can change the system is to get in the system.” This catalyzed her to run for office in 1972, specifically as state representative from the 91st District as a Democrat. She won against four male candidates and headed for Nashville in 1973, one of only five women in the Tennessee General Assembly, the second African-American woman elected, and the first from Memphis.

She gained a reputation as outspoken and assertive, but she made allies, who called her “Lady D.” One of the first bills she sponsored was a law allowing senior citizens the opportunity to attend any state college or university free of charge. Another was gaining the inclusion of African-American history in Tennessee in school textbooks. In 1976 she became chair of the House Special Committee on Corrections and realized it was important to focus on young offenders. She fought for a correctional facility that offered treatment to youth criminals with special problems and in 1978 it came into existence, named in her honor.

In 1981 she married Charles Traughber, chair of the Tennessee state parole board, and had one son from a previous marriage. She continued her legislative career, serving as House majority whip for two legislative sessions in the 1980’s, then decided to run for the position of House of Representatives Speaker Pro Tempore. The Speaker Pro Tempore presides over the House when the Speaker is absent and is a voting member of all House committees, a powerful leadership position. Rep. DeBerry said in her interview with Wynn that she “could not take an all-white, all-male leadership team. I felt I had to challenge the system for the sake of women and for the sake of children. Even if I lost, I felt I had to run.”

In 1986 she was elected Speaker Pro Tempore and became the first woman and the first African-American to hold that position, making her one of the most influential members of the General Assembly. She kept the position for 22 years, until control of the House passed from the Democrats to the Republicans in 2009, after which in 2011 she was honored as Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus.

While serving in the House, Lois DeBerry was also the first woman to chair the Shelby County Democratic Caucus. She served as president of the National Caucus of Black Women and as president and later a member of the executive committee for the National Caucus of State Legislators. She came to national attention for her 2000 presidential nominating speech for Al Gore, who had been a friend and ally for 30 years. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She encouraged other women to run for office and was a powerful role model for them.

She died after an almost five-year struggle with pancreatic cancer in 2013, having represented the people of the 91st District for four decades, the longest serving representative in the Tennessee state legislature.

Former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton called her “an intelligent, cosmopolitan personality whose passion for the people she served knew no bounds.” Republican Gov. Bill Haslam praised “her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents.”

“She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her and, by her words, could inspire people to get involved,” said Democratic State Senator Lowe Finney, then of the 27th District. Congressman Steve Cohen called her “a go-to person on everything from civil rights to children’s and women’s issues.” House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh said, “Lois is a true Tennessee stateswoman. In the Legislature she led the way on a number of issues important to all Tennesseans including healthcare, education, corrections oversight, and economic development.”

Perhaps her best epitaph is what she said of herself, “I’m not afraid to speak out, and I’m going to stand on my principles, even if I have to stand by myself.”

Women of Achievement celebrates the powerful legacy of Lois DeBerry, our 2018 Heritage honoree.

 

Bessie Vance Brooks

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2014

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Bessie Vance Brooks

The story of Bessie Vance Brooks is found primarily in images and architecture, rather than written records. This is somehow fitting for an artist who played a critical role in the development of the cultural and educational institution now known as the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Bessie Vance was born near the end of the Civil War to Margaret Dabney Vance and Calvin Fletcher Vance, a prominent Memphis attorney.

She was educated at the Clara Conway Institute in Memphis and studied art under her lifelong friend Katharine Augusta “Kate” Carl. Described in her obituary as “a distinguished artist in her own right”, Bessie traveled extensively and studied in Paris. And, in a portrait painted by Kate Carl, we can imagine that Bessie enjoyed riding horses because she is outfitted in an elegant black riding habit with hat, red scarf, leather gloves and riding crop.

Years later, shortly after the turn of the century, Bessie married businessman Samuel Hamilton Brooks, whose first wife had died several years earlier. An Ohio native who moved to Memphis in 1858, Hamilton Brooks made his fortune in the wholesale grocery business and later served on the board of a bank and an insurance company. His family recalled that he had expressed an interest in building a public art gallery even before he met Bessie. Perhaps it was this shared love of art that brought the couple together during the last decade of Hamilton’s life.

In 1906, the wife of Hamilton’s business partner, E.A. Neely, spearheaded a campaign to raise support for an art museum. Mrs. Neely’s plan involved raising money through schoolchildren gathering discarded waste paper, rags and waste rubber, such as garden hoses and galoshes. This effort had languished by the time Hamilton died in 1912. The following year, Bessie made the dream of an art gallery a reality when she donated $100,000 in her husband’s memory. The Georgian marble building was designed by New York architect James Gamble Rogers who had recently completed the
Shelby County Courthouse. Ground was broken in Overton Park in 1914 – one hundred years ago this year. The museum opened on May 26, 1916.

At the dedication, Bessie’s speech was read by the Episcopal Bishop Thomas F. Gailor: “I hereby give and donate this building to the public use as a repository, conservatory, and museum of art—to be kept and maintained forever. . . for the free use and service of students of art and for the enjoyment, inspiration, and instruction of our people.”

Bessie’s generosity provided more than a building; it created a place where many other women in the city contributed to the arts and, especially, to art education. The Memphis Art Association, founded in 1914 by Florence McIntyre and other members of the Nineteenth Century Club, adopted the Brooks Museum. McIntyre, an artist who studied under William Merritt Chase, became the museum’s first director. (She received the Heritage Award from Women of Achievement in 2008.)

Other women’s organizations supported the museum by raising funds and organizing lectures and children’s programs. In 1934, the organization now known as the Brooks Museum League was formed to promote the work of the museum with “special attention focused on activities for children.” The League continues to support art education by hosting the annual Mid-South Scholastic Art Awards to honor exemplary art created by junior high and high school students in the region.

Bessie Vance Brooks did not remain in Memphis to see the development of the Brooks. A few years after the museum opened, she moved to Florida where she died in 1943. She was buried in Elmwood Cemetery with her husband and other members of his family. If you visit Elmwood today, you won’t find much information about Bessie’s history. Her name was never added to the family tombstone in the space below her husband’s.

In order to learn about her legacy, you must leave Elmwood for the Brooks Museum where you can see the fulfillment of Bessie’s vision of both a cultural and educational institution for our city. In keeping with her wishes, the museum continues to offer education programs, hosting more than 15,000 students a year and providing workshops and resources for teachers.

With a collection that numbers almost 9,000 works of art, and a building that has been expanded three times, the Brooks has no doubt exceeded what Bessie imagined for her community. Her legacy endures and generations have benefited from the beauty and glory of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

 

Photo: Katherine “Kate” Augusta Carl, American, ca. 1850-1938 • Portrait of Bessie Vance Brooks, ca. 1890 Oil on canvas • Gift of Mrs. Samuel Hamilton Brooks 16.4 , Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

Susanne Coulan Scruggs

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2013

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Susanne Coulan Scruggs

Susanne Coulan Scruggs could have easily filled her days and social calendar with teas and luncheons and the activities of her six children and her husband, a prominent Shelby County attorney and judge.

Instead, Susanne devoted much of her adult life to improving conditions for many of the least fortunate in her adopted city of Memphis. Born in Boston, she moved to Memphis in 1889 after marrying attorney Thomas M. Scruggs. In the next 50 years, she would lead endeavors to provide safe places for children to play, improve public education, create a juvenile court, provide free medical care to needy children, and initiate family welfare programs.

A founding member of the Nineteenth Century Club, Susanne is credited with directing a fundraising reception that ensured the opening of the Cossitt Library in 1894. After that successful event, she began to focus her efforts on social programs to help Memphis children at a time when progressive leaders across the country were tackling similar community issues. Memphis had the added complications of recovering from the Yellow Fever epidemic just two decades earlier.

Many of the groups and agencies organized through Susanne’s leadership are organizations we take for granted today. At the turn of the century, she was on the cutting edge. She was perhaps best known for founding the Memphis Playground Association in 1908 to ensure supervised playgrounds in Memphis parks. The organization creatively enlisted unruly boys to be part of a “Playground Police”, transforming disorder into self-government with the young men serving as protectors of younger children. The Playground Association became the most influential child welfare organization in the city. Its leaders were responsible for the creation of a children’s ward in the City Hospital and the establishment of a Juvenile Court.

In working to create the Juvenile Court, Susanne corresponded with Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey of Denver, a national pioneer in the juvenile justice movement. Born in West Tennessee, Lindsey provided legal forms for the Memphis reformers to use in creating the Court and Detention Home. Susanne disagreed with a decision to make the Juvenile Court part of the city court system instead of the county probate courts, saying city court was an extension of the police department. As chairman of the Juvenile Court Advisory Board, she worked to make the best of the situation and fought for a larger budget. While the board did not receive all of its requests, Susanne stood firm on several issues including a female probation officer.

Susanne ultimately was dissatisfied with the Juvenile Court and resigned from the Advisory Board in protest. She founded the Children’s Protective Union, a complementary agency that found homes for children. Susanne argued that dependent children should not experience the Juvenile Court system because it was designed for delinquent children. In her work with the Union, she served as a “friendly visitor” to homes of children served by the agency.

In the first decade of 1900, Susanne organized two public school associations: the Woman’s Public Schools Association in 1905 and the Public Education Association in 1907. The Woman’s Public Schools Association focused on efficiency in education. They fought for free paper and books for needy children and less classroom crowding. In one letter to the Memphis School Board, Susanne made an argument still debated today. She contended that promotion to the next grade should be based on a child’s daily work instead of a single exam.

The second educational group, the Public Education Association, had a broader agenda in the schools. Through that group, Susanne led advocacy efforts for greater financial stability for the school system, improved sanitation in schools, medical exams for students and the serving of hot lunches. Both of the education associations focused on increasing parental involvement. Susanne was active in both state and city levels of the Congress of Mothers and Parent Teacher Associations and she urged women to participate as a way to make their voices heard until they earned the right to vote.

It should be noted that while Susanne worked for child-welfare reform during a time of segregation, she often supported Julia Hooks and other African-American reformers in their parallel efforts.Susanne looked beyond specific issues to address the broader social context. In 1913, at the statewide meeting of the Congress of Mothers and Parent Teacher Associations, she made a motion asking the organization president to name a committee to draft a series of bills to be introduced in the General Assembly. Among the 11 proposals were:

  • A provision that the state enforce child support by fathers, with incarceration as the penalty;
  • A requirement that girls under 16 not be required to testify in open court in cases of rape;
  • That women be allowed to serve as juvenile court judges and on school boards; and
  • That “all laws and measures affecting the welfare of children shall be state-wide in scope.”
    Susanne’s vision was years ahead of the General Assembly, but many of her proposals became law during her lifetime. In the book Gateway to Justice, scholar Jennifer Trost described Susanne as the most prominent child welfare activist in Memphis in the early Progressive years.

Susanne Scruggs died in 1945.

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2010

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was a contemporary of more famous women fliers like Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes. She began her career in the early barnstorming days, walking wings and parachute jumping in her own flying circus. After she and her pilot, Vernon Omlie, landed in Memphis stranded and broke in 1922, they married and together established the first airport in the Mid-South and one of the first flying schools in the country.

Throughout her long career, Phoebe collected a string of “firsts” for women aviators. The recipient of the first Transport Pilot’s License and Airplane Mechanic’s License issued to a woman, Phoebe Omlie set a number of speed, endurance and altitude records. As an air racer, she won a number of high profile races, including the First National Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and the Transcontinental Handicap Sweepstakes in 1931.

In 1932, at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, Omlie logged over 20,000 miles for FDR’s presidential campaign. After the election, President Roosevelt made her Special Assistant for Air Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor of NASA), the first woman government official in aviation. Until she left government service in 1952, Phoebe Omlie was a central participant in the efforts to regularize and bureaucratize civil aviation, to make it safer and more affordable for the average citizen. Further, she used her access to government and the media to tirelessly promote women’s active involvement in aviation.

Though she came to a tragic end, dying alone in a transient’s hotel in Indianapolis at the age of 73, the victim of lung cancer and poverty, a few enthusiasts remembered her and proposed naming the control tower at Memphis International Airport for her in the 1980s. Due to a series of mishaps, the facility was never formally dedicated. This will be corrected when the new control tower is completed in 2011.

Phoebe Omlie’s place in the pages of aviation history is unchallenged. A woman of daring, courage, intelligence and devotion to the “air age,” she ranks as one of the greatest participants in 20th century American progress.

In October 2011, both the old and new air traffic control towers at Memphis International Airport were named for Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie in a ceremony featuring members of Congress and other officials.

Louise Fitzhugh

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2011

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Louise Fitzhugh

Best known to many as the author and illustrator of the well-loved children’s classic, Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh leaves a lasting legacy through her groundbreaking depictions of children that challenged sex role stereotypes long before such issues had become part of the public consciousness. Her books, first published in the early 1960s, depict a range of characters — from spunky girls who aspire to be writers and scientists to sensitive boys who want to be dancers rather than lawyers. Her characters provide positive role models for any child, girl or boy, who dares to be “different.”

Louise Fitzhugh was born in 1928 to a prominent Memphis family. She began both writing and drawing when she was young and continued to do both her entire life. She attended Hutchison, Southwestern, Florida Southern College, Bard College and NYU. She was uncomfortable with both racist and sexist attitudes prevalent in the south during that time so made a conscious effort to leave her southern accent behind. Prior to her work as a children’s author, she was a successful visual artist and illustrator. Later her book, Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, was adapted into a Tony-award winning play, “The Tap Dance Kid.” Yet it is for her children’s books that she is best remembered.

Her young, quirky outsider characters offer support for children who feel awkward or insecure. This is particularly true for young lesbian and gay readers, who find reassurance in Fitzhugh’s sensitive depiction of butch girls, artsy boys, and intense same-sex friendships. Fitzhugh’s characters challenged prevailing assumptions about sex roles in ways that are both provocative and entertaining and accessible for both children and adults. Her books were essential forerunners in the movement to publish non-sexist children’s books.

In 1964, Harriet the Spy was published. The groundbreaking novel featured a rude, incredibly inquisitive heroine who threw tantrums, mocked her parents, and alienated her classmates with her obsessive note-taking and candid opinions about their personal habits. She also happened to be extremely funny. The book was an instant hit with kids, though not with all adults.

Louise Fitzhugh’s unsentimental portrait of Harriet paved the way for writers like Judy Blume to present contemporary children grappling with hitherto unmentionable problems. Harriet the Spy is still in print and continues to influence and entertain young readers.

Awards for her work include a New York Times Outstanding Books of the Year Award, an American Library Association Notable Book citation and a New York Times Choice of Best Illustrated Books of the Year.

Louise Fitzhugh died in 1974 in Connecticut at the age of 46, but her work lives on to enrich all who turn the page.

Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and Lide Smith Meriwether

Elizabeth Avery Meriwether
Lide Smith Meriwether
WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2005

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and Lide Smith Meriwether

Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and her sister-in-law Lide Meriwether were pioneering champions for voting privileges for women in Memphis, in Tennessee, and nationally. Fortunately, they both had supportive husbands—Minor L. Meriwether, an attorney and brother Niles, the Memphis city engineer. The two Meriwether families lived in a single home on Peabody Avenue while Elizabeth and Lide went forth to work for temperance and women’s rights.

Elizabeth Avery Meriwether started advocating full equality for women long before such an idea was acceptable. Before their wedding on January 1, 1850, she and Minor signed a marriage contract agreeing to share and invest equally. In 1872, when Elizabeth read that Susan B. Anthony had been arrested, tried and fined for attempting to vote in Rochester, New York, she announced that she intended to vote in Memphis at the next election. “If I am arrested for that crime, she said, “I shall be glad to share Miss Anthony’s cell.” But when Elizabeth walked into the Fifth Ward polling place, she was handed a ballot, filled it out, and dropped it in the ballot box.

Afterward, she was never certain why she was not opposed but concluded that the poll workers probably did not count her vote anyway.

That same year, she founded her own newspaper, The Tablet. Every issue promoted votes for women. She used her own money to rent The Memphis Theatre, largest in town, and on May 5, 1876, flouting all rules of “ladylike” decorum, delivered a public address on women’s rights. More than 500 women attended. Next day, the Memphis Appeal reported that “Mrs. Meriwether has proven a worthy advocate of her sex. She was interrupted frequently with bursts of applause.” Not long after that she led a delegation of women appearing before the Memphis School Board to demand that in the name of justice, women and men teachers be paid the same salaries. They were unsuccessful, but the seeds of the idea that women should have equal economic opportunities had been planted.

During the 1880s, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether’s scope became national. She traveled with Susan B. Anthony, advocating votes for women in speeches from Connecticut to Texas. After she and her family moved to St. Louis in 1883, she continued her campaigning and pleading the cause before three national presidential nominating conventions.

Meanwhile in Tennessee, her sister-in-law had assumed the leadership role in the suffrage crusade.

Originally the editor of a literary journal for genteel females, Lide Smith Meriwether had championed the “rescue of fallen women” by taking prostitutes into her home and training them for other occupations.

A vigorous advocate for the temperance cause, her efforts as a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to organize Southern black women resulted in the formation of black WCTU groups in several Tennessee communities.

In 1886, the National Woman Suffrage Association employed Lide to lecture and organize groups in the state of Tennessee. She mounted an intensive campaign and in two weeks visited most sizable towns and helped organize fledgling Equal Rights clubs in Nashville, Knoxville, Jackson, Greenville, and Murfreesboro. Lide organized a Woman Suffrage League in Memphis and was elected president. Later, in the 1890s, she was elected to several terms as president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and became their “Honorary President for Life” in 1900. Lide Meriwether, representing Tennessee, joined women from 27 other states in Washington in 1892 to testify before a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing on woman suffrage.

Though they never stopped working all of their days for women’s enfranchisement, neither Lide Smith Meriwether, who died in 1913 at the age of 84, nor Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, who was 92 when she died in 1917, lived to see their dreams fulfilled. But the great victory won by a later generation of suffragists in Nashville in 1920 was built in no small part on a strong foundation created by the ground-breaking efforts of Tennessee’s crusading Meriwether sisters-in-law.

Georgia Patton Washington

Women of Achievement
2012

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Dr. Georgia Patton Washington

Georgia Esther Lee Patton was born into slavery in 1864 in middle Tennessee. Her father died before she was born leaving her mother to care for her and her siblings. She worked as a laundress for 14 years until her death in 1880.

Somehow, despite limited opportunities, Georgia managed to complete high school, the only one of her family to do so. Then her siblings saved money to help her attend Central Tennessee College (now Fisk University) in Nashville where she graduated in 1890. Two and a half years later, she completed a medical degree at Meharry Medical College as one of two female graduates.

This daughter of slaves, a gifted student who had worked long hours to earn money to pay for her medical education, next scraped together funds to pay for a missionary trip to Africa! And who should be in the other berth on her trip across the Atlantic but Ida B. Wells-Barnett, heading to England to launch an anti-lynching campaign.

Georgia sailed on to Monrovia, Liberia. She began seeing patients. In a letter to her medical school dean, she wrote: “On examining my first case, remarks made by the natives were: ‘Patients in his condition never get well; we always expect them to die.’ After careful treatment and watching for two months he was able to leave his bed, and finally went to his work.” Her medical work was apparently exhausting and after two years, she returned to the United States, having herself contracted tuberculosis.

She opened a medical practice in Memphis. Her practice became “large and lucrative,” according to her medical school dean, G. W. Hubbard. She became the first black woman to receive both physician’s and surgeon’s licenses from the state of Tennessee.

She became well established among Memphis’s sizeable community of black middle class professionals. One of the most prominent was David W. Washington who had in 1874 become the first black letter carrier in the Memphis Post Office Department. He amassed a fortune in real estate. He was 12 years older than his bride. The two married in December 1897. In 1899 she gave birth to a son, Willie Patton Washington, who died soon after his birth.

Georgia was deeply involved as a volunteer in her church and community – and she also became known for her philanthropy, particularly with the Freedmen’s Aid Society. Her devotion to donating $10 in gold every month earned her the nickname “Gold Lady.”

She also was clearly a feminist. When the Freedmen’s letter of thanks was addressed “Dear Brother” she responded plainly: “I am not a brother… Say Sister next time.”

Five months later – after three years of marriage and only four months after giving birth to her second son – Dr. Georgia Patton Washington died, having never really regained her health due to the tuberculosis.

She was 36. Her baby son died soon after. Both are buried in Zion Cemetery, established by ex-slaves in 1867 on South Parkway East.

Dr. Georgia Patton Washington blazed the way for women of color in medicine, rising from slavery to care for patients as the first female African American physician and surgeon in Tennessee. We honor her tonight as a Woman of Achievement who still enriches our lives and whose story inspires us to push past any obstacle of birth, background or circumstance to become all we can become.

Alma C. Hanson

Women of Achievement
2009

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Alma C. Hanson

In 1922, the then 38-year-old Alma Hanson came to serve at the then-LeMoyne High School. She stayed until her death in 1962, at age 78, at the school she had helped nurture into LeMoyne College. During those years Miss Hanson dedicated her life to the growth of the school in order to improve the lives of the African American students who passed through its doors and thus to improve the lives of all African Americans living in the South.

Alma Hanson was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1884. As a young girl she lived in Sweden and attended school there. A dedicated idealist, she studied business administration at New York University before joining the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church. Her first assignment was to Palledelia, Alabama where she served until World War I, when she accepted a position with DuPont. In 1922 the American Missionary Association assigned her to LeMoyne High School. She moved into a small apartment on campus where she lived for the rest of her life.

For Alma Hanson, her work at the school was not just a nine-to-five job. She became involved in all aspects of life at LeMoyne-Owen as well as being active in civic groups in Memphis. According to Annette Hunt, Director of LeMoyne’s Hollis Price Library, Miss Hanson’s name is sprinkled throughout the college newsletters and archives. During her time, she was an intricate part of the success of the school and the success of its students. She was just a “good fit.”

For many years, Miss Hanson’s full-time job was treasurer of the school. She oversaw the financial transition of LeMoyne from a high school to a junior college to a 4-year college. During that time she also served in other capacities, at one time temporarily serving as acting president.

When she retired in 1952, she continued to live on campus and took on the job of Superintendant of Buildings and Grounds. She was especially fond of the grounds and cultivated a beautiful rose garden.

Over the years, Alma Hanson was active in the League of Women Voters, serving as board member and treasurer for eight years. Nominator and Women of Achievement Courage Recipient Anne Shafer says, “ (Miss Hanson) welcomed me to the board in 1958 as secretary. The racially integrated organization was new to me, and it was not popular in the South at that time. I had many things to learn about people and their role in a democratic government; (she) was patient and kind and a wonderful role model.”

Miss Hanson also loved theatre and music and had an excellent sense of humor. A 1960 article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar describes her portrayals of “illiterate” and “handicapped” voters in League of Women Voters skits. Though intended to be humorous, the skits were designed to make an important point about everyone’s right to vote.

Alma Hanson continued to be as active as possible until her death in 1962. At her death, it was found that from her meager pay as a missionary, she had saved $30,000, a substantial amount at that time. This was used as the seed money for the building that became the Alma C. Hanson Student Center, the first building on campus to be named after someone who had not served officially as president. At the dedication, the college said of her, “Her interests were as broad as the world. She knew no pettiness nor did she concern herself with parochial or provincial interests.”

Following her death, in keeping with her request, her body was cremated and her ashes scattered over her beloved rose garden.

Alma Hanson’s life of focused, determined service and lifelong commitment to her cause left the legacy of opportunity for generations of students at LeMoyne-Owen College. She shows us the possibilities of one individual’s devoted purpose – our 2009 honoree for Heritage, Alma Hanson.