Shera Bie

Women of Achievement
1994

DETERMINATION
for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite
widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Shera Bie

Shera Bie was an elementary school teacher in 1968 when her eight-year-old daughter was diagnosed with learning disabilities. She soon joined the fledgling Memphis Association for Children with Learning Disorders — and began 24 years of passionate, skillful advocacy for handicapped children and adults in Tennessee.

In 1968, the MACLD was largely a support group for parents of children with learning disabilities. In her first of four terms as president in 1974, she organized groups in Tennessee into a state affiliate of the national ACLD, Inc. and was elected the first state president.

When Shera discovered that Tennessee’s Mandatory Special Education Law, passed in 1972, was not being implemented, she organized 85 related Memphis groups to support implementation and full funding. More than 300 parents and children came to a Nashville rally to hear 13 parents address the state House of Representatives. Two days later, Shera and some of the speakers met for 90 minutes with Gov. Winfield Dunn and the state finance chairman. As a result, $1.5 million was added to the governor’s special education budget.

In 1978, the national ACLD recognized the need for families to have assistance in order to use the 1975 federal law to gain access to appropriate special education services. After attending national training sessions, Shera and six others began what is now Effective Advocacy for Citizens with Handicaps (EACH), the state protection and advocacy agency with three offices across the state.

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s Shera devoted hours to both the local and state organizations. She had a business telephone in the name of ACLD installed in her home. She took care of newsletters, educational meetings, parent coffees and dispensing of information. She presented programs for schools and civic groups. She appeared on radio and TV programs. She arranged with the Memphis City Schools Mental Health Center to join MACLD in publishing the first Learning Disorders Source Book, a free listing of all agencies in Shelby County, with services for individuals and their families.

As volunteer involvement declined and active chapters faded, she worked with a small group to reactivate the state organization and find for it a funding base that would permit a paid staff. In 1984, Shera was hired at token pay as the first executive director and she developed a strategy to secure United Way funding by bringing to Memphis from Minnesota a parent support and education program base on building self-image.

When she stepped down in 1992, Shera left in place a vigorous organization with two employees, a committed volunteer base and a budget of $66,236. The program benefits enjoyed today by many exceptional children are the direct result of Shera Bie’s untiring determination.

Georgia King

Women of Achievement
1994

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Georgia King

Georgia Anna King has walked through hurricanes, disregarded barricades on the steps of our nation’s capital, and captured microphones from guards to give voice to the homeless.

In 1989, she was one of the leaders of the Southern contingency of the New Exodus Walkers. Her group walked more than 250 miles from Roanoke, Virginia to the steps of the capital to make the plight of the homeless a priority in Congress. Queen Akua (her African name means Sweet Messenger) led the group in greeting disapproving observers with “Praise the Lord.” Before reaching their destination, skies turned black, winds arose and rain pored down. But the spirit of God told Georgia to put on her sanctified sneakers and to continue. Putting her fear behind her, she led her group forward through what was Hurricane Hugo.

Ahead on the march she saw a man who in her words looked like “one of her children.” She shouted, “Are you homeless?” “Yes,” he replied. “Then come with us to Washington. We’re going to shake the Bust to get money restored to help you.” And one more joined the group.

That year $250 billion designated for programs to help the homeless had been cut from the national budget. Upon reaching D.C., marchers from the South met marchers from the North and busloads of activists from all over. The group now was over 200,000 strong when it reached the Capitol steps. Their efforts paid off and funds were restored.

This struggle is nothing new. Georgia Anna has been fighting on behalf of the homeless since 1960. That summer she went to New York and saw for the first time people trapped by homelessness. The daughter of a Union City, Tennessee entrepreneur, she had never seen people sleeping on the streets before. Driving through the Bowery with an old family friend, she kept questioning what she saw. And she didn’t like the answers she got.

So, at the age of 20, rescuing the homeless became one of her personal missions. Queen Akua’s efforts don’t end with the homeless. She’s a grassroots activist who work directly with the mentally ill and the chemically dependent. Her interests include the arts and work on the board of Africa in April as well as with Project 30,000 Homes. She’s been honored for more than 53,000 hours of community service. Currently she’s working to open the Miracles Mission for the Homeless on South Main Street. Her goal is to look for long-term solutions for problems.

“I plant seeds,” she says of her many interests and accomplishments. “And find my courage and direction from the Lord.”

Sarah Clayborne

Women of Achievement
1994

HEROISM
for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:

Sarah Clayborne

Sarah Clayborne may be the 1990s quintessential mom and apple pie woman. Known as “The Pie Lady” in Memphis, hers is a story of personal commitment and initiative that has caught the hearts of the readers of People magazine, actor Tom Cruise, talk show audiences and just about everybody who knows her story of struggle.

“Sometimes I wonder what all this attention’s about,” she said. “All I did was try to make a living for myself and my daughter and grandbabies.”

Sarah, 44, is a cook who has worked for several well-known restaurants in the city. She no doubt would have continued working in relative obscurity had it not been for a robber’s bullet which struck her daughter in the head in 1987, leaving her paralyzed and helpless. Eugenia Binkins was 18 at the time, had one young son and was six weeks pregnant. She spent her entire pregnancy in a coma, later giving birth to Ahab, who now is five.

To raise money to meet the family’s mounting medical and living expenses, Sarah began baking pies on the side. In 1989, when she lost her job as head chef at a restaurant and nightclub in a dispute over work hours, Sarah decided to launch a full-time business making the pies she learned to bake as an eight-year-old child at her grandmother’s side. Early success led her to open a restaurant in an old house in a rundown South Memphis neighborhood, not far from the Mississippi River. Although she was gaining a steady reputation as “The Pie Lady,” these weren’t easy times. Her home had burned in 1987 and needed repairs. Then her restaurant, including supplies and equipment, burned before she opened the doors for business. She had to make repairs. Then in 1991, her home was burglarized. Even her daughter’s wheelchair was stolen.

Despite the setbacks, she opened her business on Florida Street in January 1991 on little more than a prayer. The menu included soul food and, of course, pies. “I didn’t have any money but I could see my little building and I did have a vision,” she said.

She raised her price on her pies from $10 to $12. A lot of people told her she wouldn’t sell them at that price, that people wouldn’t go to her restaurant in the decrepit neighborhood. Both warnings proved wrong. Sarah’s reputation soared when production crew members filming The Firm learned about her restaurant and began frequenting the place to eat chicken pot pie, smothered chicken and dressing, mixed greens, candied yams and — of course — those pies. Tom Cruise came by one day and ordered a piece of Cherry Royale. He bought a whole pie to go. Director Sydney Pollack one day tasted Sarah’s Glory Hallelujah pie. He left a $100 tip.

Sarah says sometimes she can’t believe how far she has come. She credits her grandmothers and many African-American cooks for her baking talents, and untold numbers of Memphians who have supported her business endeavor. “I couldn’t have kept going,” she says, “without the help of a lot of wonderful people.”

Sarah now employs several people and has a new dream: to use some of her pie proceeds to open a center for indigents.

Elizabeth Phillips

Women of Achievement
1994

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Elizabeth Phillips

Although the life of Elizabeth Phillips would qualify her as a Woman of Achievement in almost all categories, her outstanding trait was her courage — a quality recognized by her friends and foes alike.

Born in 1906 in Athens, Tennessee, she taught high school in a small town for 20 years while earning her doctorate in English literature. Widowed early, and divorced after an unhappy second marriage, she moved to Memphis in 1953 to join the faculty at Memphis State College (it wasn’t yet a university). Soon thereafter, she signed a petition with a group of like-minded Memphis State professors urging that the Memphis Public Library be opened freely to blacks — instead of only once a week on so-called “black Thursdays.” President Jack Smith demanded a withdrawal of the endorsement from each signatory, under threat of dismissal from the faculty. Though Dr. Phillips, as sole caretaker for her ill and aging mother, dreaded such loss, she adamantly refused to recant, earning the respect of her colleagues and, not incidentally, security in her profession.

Following her mother’s death in the late 1950s, Elizabeth resolved to dedicate her personal energies to, as she put it, “working for the enrichment of all lives that touch mine.” This decision led her to ever-greater involvement in the Civil Rights movement, just getting under way at that time. She worked tirelessly for the NAACP, the ACLU, and was a member of the Tennessee Council on Human Relations.

But her participation became most visible at the time of the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis when she was one of the few whites who marched with the strikers. Immediately following Dr. King’s assassination, at a meeting of the group “Save Our City,” called to discuss what needed to be done now, Elizabeth chose as her personal assignment to visit the police station nightly and monitor arrest tactics — this, after numerous reports of police brutality by black citizens arrested during the curfews.

After the strike was settled, and dismayed that her own Presbyterian congregation was not racially integrated, she joined the predominantly black Parkway Gardens Church, one of only nine white members at the time. She then turned her attention to her main interest — education — working with Memphis State’s Black Students Association to bring needed curriculum reforms.

In 1969, Elizabeth chaired a committee that set up a Black Studies course at the college and became the first professor to teach the first course, English 4371, American Negro Literature. Later, on a professional level, she published a series of study guides to the works of such authors as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry and Alex Haley. Haley called her guide to Autobiography of Malcolm X the best he had seen.

Honors came her way in later years. In 1975, she was the first recipient of MSU’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights award. That same year the Memphis Newspaper Guild named her Citizen of the Year for her service as “a humanitarian who sought to further ideals of racial quality and human dignity.” In 1980, just a few months before her death, Parkway Gardens Church awarded her the denomination’s highest honor for laity, naming her Ruling Elder Emeritus. By then, she was the church’s only white member.

In her will, Dr. Elizabeth Phillips left her entire estate to establish a scholarship fund to aid MSU’s black students. Thus her heritage lives on.

Mattie Sengstacke

Women of Achievement
1994

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Mattie Sengstacke

Long before anybody was talking about “networking” Mattie Sengstacke was doing it. No one in Memphis during the past three decades has been more effective in bringing people of different races, classes, religions and interests together to work for good causes.

A native of Little Rock, she grew up and was educated in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in the early 1960s with her newspaper editor husband and their children. Here, Mattie immediately joined the newly formed Saturday Lunch Club, a group of black and white women who lunched together monthly to monitor compliance with the desegregation mandates of the new U.S. Civil Rights Act. As Mattie has said, “That’s when it all started.”

She soon became a fixture in the struggle for local civic progress — a catalyst who could make things happen.

In the 1960s Mattie spearheaded establishment of the Red Balloon Players, an integrated traveling theater group for children. She started a summer “dew-in” for underprivileged girls. She served on the Front Street Theatre board, and was chairperson of Friends of Channel 10. In 1968 she supported the striking sanitation workers by holding “house-rent parties” and signing up marchers for demonstrations.

In the 1970s, as a charter member and president of Memphis Council for International Visitors, Mattie scheduled activities for foreign visitors to the city. She also founded an emergency fund to help stranded student refugees. She was a charter member of MIFA and organized the W.C. Handy Centennial Celebration in 1973. She worked for equal rights for women as a founding member of the Volunteer Women’s Roundtable, and she joined in the efforts of women seeking (to no avail) to start a women’s channel on Memphis cable TV.

In the 1980s Mattie helped organize United Music Heritage to honor unrecognized pioneers of Memphis music. She was program coordinator for the monthly ecumenical breakfasts of Congregations United, a project of the National Council of Christians and Jews. She also worked with Family Service, Girl Scouts, the Heart Fund, U.S.O., Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity and United Way.

In 1994 Mattie single-handedly organized a recognition ceremony at the National Civil Rights Museum to pay tribute to “Women Who Made A Difference in the ‘60s in Memphis.” Sure, Mattie Sengstacke is a woman who has made a difference in Memphis. As moving spirit, guardian angel, guiding genius or president facilitator for a succession of worthy projects through the years, she is a model of steadfastness.

Paula Casey

Women of Achievement
1994

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Paula Casey

Paula Casey has a vision of women taking their rightful place in the halls of power. She has worked tirelessly and creatively to make that vision a reality.

Paula is a co-founder of the Memphis Women’s Political Caucus, was president of the Tennessee Women’s Caucus, served as a charter member and secretary of the Economic Justice for Women Coalition, and is currently a board member of Woman’s Party Corp. in Washington, D.C., which maintains the Sewall-Belmont House, a depository for women’s suffrage memorabilia.

In 1989 Paula founded VOTE 70 and incorporated it with Carol Lynn Yellin and Joan Horne Lollar to celebrate the 70-year history of women’s right to vote. Frustrated with the lack of information concerning the suffragists in history books, she decided to take action. The result is a 12.5-minute video, Generations, detailing 70 years of struggle for the right for women to vote. It is now available in all 50 states and at the Smithsonian Institute.

Other activities include over a decade of work for the YWCA as both a volunteer and board member and as a board member of the National Federation of Press Women since 1977. A former newspaper journalist, Paula brings powerful energy and enthusiasm to her causes. She is a voice for Tennessee women on political issues. An example is this comment from a July 1991 story about Gov. Ned McWherter’s failure to appoint women to the University of Tennessee’s 24-member Board of Trustees: “The very fact that he cannot look at that and say ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ suggests he needs some consciousness-training. He’d never dream of appointing an all-white board. Why doesn’t he know better than to have all men?”

Carol Lynn Yellin says, “She carries people along with her own spirit.” And Marilou Awiakta adds that “Paula has, as the Indian people say, ‘a good mind’ — that is, she is positive in thoughts and spirit and works for the good of the people.”

It is no coincidence that these past recipients of the Vision Award mention spirit. For Paula’s spirit is strong and a model to us all. Her nominator says, “Paula is indeed a hero, not only to me, but to every little girl in America who may grow up to realize all her dreams without limit and to every woman in America who already can.”

It is her vision of equality for women that makes this true.

Veronica Coleman-Davis

Women of Achievement
1994

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Veronica Coleman-Davis

Veronica Coleman is a woman of “firsts” who has carved a wide path through Shelby County’s legal community and right into America’s history books. Along the way, she has worked to identify crime’s root and to foster programs to slow its growth.

Born in Washington, D.C. Ronnie’s family moved to Brooklyn when she was still a baby. In 1956 her father opened an insurance company in Ghana. Ronnie lived in Africa during her junior high years, but in 1959 she was sent back to a Pennsylvania boarding school and spent summers with her parents in Africa.

She graduated from Howard University, moved to Memphis with her husband and graduated from Memphis State University Law School in 1975 — while raising three sons. She first practiced law as an assistant public defender for the city and then for the county. Then, inspired to practice as a private defense attorney, she and two friends formed Memphis’ first all-female law firm — Coleman, Sorak and Williams. Next, she was appointed to serve as an assistant in the District Attorney General’s office where she remained for three years. Then this varied legal career took another turn, this time into the academic arena as assistant to the president and legal counsel for Dr. Thomas Carpenter at Memphis State.

After a year and a half, Ronnie returned to litigation as senior attorney for Federal Express Corp. But soon came another twist in the path — and in 1989 she was appointed referee of Juvenile Court, the first woman on that bench in 25 years. When she ran for district attorney in 1990, she said, “Most people did not feel that a woman should lead a law enforcement agency. In 1990 I thought I was born too soon. But obviously my perspective has changed. Clearly, I was born at just the right time.”

Ronnie’s path through the law reached its highest point so far last year when she was appointed by President Clinton as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee — the first woman and the first black person to hold that post in the United States. U.S. District Judge Odell Horton extended the oath of office in October. “We are witnessing,” Horton said, “a unique and important event in our lies, in the life of the court, life of the judiciary, city, county and nation.”

Ronnie is past president of the local Chapter of the National Bar Association, founding president of the Coalition of 100 Black Women, Memphis chapter, and active in Leadership Memphis, Goals for Memphis, and more. During her tenure as president of the Coalition of 100 Black Women, she initiated in 1984 the first volunteer mentoring program for teenage mothers.

Ronnie has said, “People call women a minority and women are not a minority. Once the public realizes that women are capable of being leaders, there are no limits to what women can do in government or in the private sector.”