Wanda Taylor

Women of Achievement

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

Wanda Taylor

Born to parents who battled long-term alcohol and drug addiction, and raised in LeMoyne Garden and Claiborne Home housing projects, no one who knew her as a child and teenager would have expected Wanda Taylor to succeed.

“At 11, I was introduced to cocaine, alcohol and sex,” she told blogger Wiley Henry in 2014. “I started experiencing domestic violence at 15, dropped out of school in the 11th-grade, and became a teen mom. I had no morals and values.

“I was so confused. I was selling drugs, stealing, in and out of the court. I’m the face in incest, homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration – everything. I lived at the Salvation Army twice, in a vacant apartment with my children, and out of my mom’s car. . .I was shot at, stabbed, almost burned alive, and tied up. Guns were pulled on me countless times,” said Taylor. She also survived an abusive marriage lasting almost three years.

In 1992, at the age of 21, she found the strength to turn her life around so that her two children would have better lives. She found Jesus Christ and took the initiative to transform her life. She couldn’t read or write or analyze a sentence well, but she was determined. While working both a full-time and a part-time job, as well as taking care of her family, she returned to school at age 26 and two years later earned her high school diploma. She then went to Southwest Tennessee Community College, receiving a Technical Certificate in Substance Abuse Counseling and an Associate of Science degree in Human Services. She later enrolled in the University of Phoenix and earned a B.S. degree in Business Management.

She knew she wanted to help other women. She used her own experiences to educate and motivate others for over 25 years, teaching through the Salvation Army, Serenity Recovery Center, Shelby County Rape Crisis Center, Department of Human Services and Shelby County Child Support Office.

She also volunteered to share her life experiences through various organizations in Memphis — to women in prison, to women in homeless situations through Project for the Homeless Connect, to teenagers through Juvenile Court and other programs.

In 2004 she self-published her life story as a book, A Woman of God: An Inspirational Book for Women.

Many treatment programs last an average of 28-30 days and the relapse rate averages 70%. To cycle in and out of rehab several times is common. Knowing the limits of the average substance abuse treatment programs, Wanda wanted to create a program that would have a better chance of breaking the cycle and preventing substance abuse relapse. She began LINCS, Ladies in Need Can Survive, in 2013, out of her own home and with her own money and serves as the CEO and Executive Director. LINCS today provides a one-year residential program with structured, training. Participants go through an intensive drug and alcohol outpatient program, counseling, anger management, domestic violence education, parenting & life skills coaching, job readiness, career and financial planning, and a health and wellness program, along with First Aid/CPR and SIDS Training, and housing assistance.

Because it is demanding and holistic, the program is small. “Every woman who comes through the door, I mentor them and provide services to get them back on track,” Wanda said. She holds their hands and walks them through the process, provides transportation to school, and prepares them for structure and stability when they leave the program.

For taking the initiative to turn her own life around and using her experiences to help other women; for her initiative in realizing the weaknesses of traditional rehabilitation and creating LINCS as a holistic rehabilitation alternative, Wanda Taylor has earned the Women of Achievement Initiative Award.

As she sums it up, “Other programs deal with the addiction. I deal with the core issue, the root cause.”

Miriam DeCosta-Willis


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Educator, author and Civil Rights activist, Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis has steadfastly worked to advance the cause of Civil Rights and widen knowledge of the Black experience in the United States and the African Diaspora. She understands what it means to break racial and gender barriers and defy the odds. She embodies much of what the Women’s and Civil Rights Movements hoped to accomplish in the last half of the 20th Century.

Miriam organized her first protest while a high school junior in Orangeburg, South Carolina. That same year, she and her mother were invited to lunch by the white wife of a local judge and the wife’s black friend. It was a test to see if she was a “nice Negro girl” who could integrate the prestigious, all-white Westover School for girls, in Connecticut. Though she didn’t know the lunch was a test, she passed and went on to graduate at the top of her Westover class. In 1952, on she went to Wellesley, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

Marriage brought her to Memphis. After having two children, she decided to pursue a Master’s degree. But, because she is black, this Wellesley Phi Beta Kappa was refused entry into the then-Memphis State University grad school.

Not one to give up, she applied to the Johns Hopkins program in 1959 under her married name – Sugarmon – and was accepted because that school thought she was Jewish. The professor who oversaw the process questioned whether a good Jewish wife and mother would leave her responsibilities at home, but let her in despite his doubts. We can only imagine his surprise upon their first meeting!

Being a black woman in a sea of white women at Wellesley and in a sea of white men at Johns Hopkins taught her a thing or two about challenging situations.

At Johns Hopkins she completed a Masters and later became the first African American to earn a PhD there. By then she had four children.

Miriam returned to Memphis to become the first black faculty member at the same university that had previously denied her entrance.

Miriam has been present for significant events in Civil Rights. Visiting her mother, she became an eye-witness to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. She accompanied her mother to bus stops to pick up black workers and give them rides to their jobs. She was there the day Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home was bombed. Her mother drove them to the site. The crowd was ordered by police to step back. Miriam says, “But my mother stood there with her little short self, and she refused to move. I think that one incident really kindled my own courage and determination not to move back in the face of oppression.”

Miriam was in Memphis when Dr. King was assassinated. She participated in marches in the DC area when teaching at area universities. She and her children marched, were maced, and she has been arrested.

In Memphis, as secretary of the local NAACP, she organized what became known as “Black Mondays,” five days when black students stayed home in protest for quality of education and against lack of African-American representation on the school board. At the University she was advisor to the Black Student Association. Of course, she organized a sit-in at the President’s Office!

All the time she was steadily pursuing her academic and writing careers. A co-founder of the Black Writer’s Workshop, her published titles include: Daughters of the Diaspora; Afra-Hispanic Writers; Notable Black Memphians; Homespun Images: an Anthology of Black Writers and Artists (with Fannie Delk); The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells; Singular Like a Bird, the Art of Nancy Morejon and Black Erotica (with Reginald Martin).

Over the years, in addition to Memphis State, she has taught or served in administrative positions at Howard University, LeMoyne-Owen College, George Mason University and the University of Maryland. Now retired, she continues to write.

Miriam attributes her success to her family. Her father was a college professor and her mother a social worker, college professor and public schools counselor. She often heard the story of her grandmother, who registered to vote just two weeks after the passage of the 19th amendment. Her family emphasized education, achievement and accomplishment; tenets she has held firmly.

For this, Women of Achievement gratefully salutes Miriam DeCosta-Willis.

Lois DeBerry


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.


Tami Sawyer


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

Tami Sawyer

The shooting of Trayvon Martin 6 years ago was a transformative moment for Tami Sawyer. She was then living in Washington, D.C. and working as a diversity analyst at the Navy Yard. Seeing the gentrification of her neighborhood drive out Black businesses and homeowners, Tami began thinking about moving back to Memphis. When a shooter killed 13 co-workers in the Navy complex where she worked, the decision to move home came easily.

Tami’s early life took place in Chicago, where her father was an entrepreneur who founded the first Black wedding magazine and her mother ran her own catering company. They moved back to her mother’s hometown of Memphis when Tami was 12. She found quite a different social world. Friendships among girls across the color line were not commonplace and, though her education was excellent, not everyone was supportive, even when she was elected president of her freshman class.

Her parents had raised her to believe in herself, to embrace her African American heritage, and to advocate for others. She knew who she was, and she was not afraid to speak up.

After graduating from St. Mary’s school, she attended the historically black Hampton University and graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Memphis. After spending some time at Howard University Law School, she worked on diversity issues for the Navy for the next 13 years.

Once she returned to Memphis, she worked for Shelby County Schools until assuming her current position as Director of Diversity & Cultural Competence with Teach for America, Memphis. She runs workshops for new TFA recruits and mentors the young teachers in area schools. She is a model, a confidant, and sometimes a mother to them.

The award for “heroism” is, of course, much more than embodying one’s values in one’s career. Once connected to a vibrant group of young activists here, Tami Sawyer emerged as the energizing force behind (hashtag) #TakeEmDown901, the citizen group that pressured the city to remove two Confederate statues from downtown parks.

As part of that effort, she called a public meeting at which some 300 citizens, from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences, stood to testify to the pain that these Confederate memorials had caused or to decry the distorted history they promulgated. Speaking to groups across the city, she also collected thousands of petition signatures, and, with other local groups, proposed ways that the statues could be legally removed. Many had worked on this issue before. Tami pushed it to the forefront through social media and citizen protest.

She has since founded “Woke United,” a movement of young Black political activists from cities across the country dedicated to removing at least 5% of all Confederate statues in the country. It is a movement with growing support from historians, mayors, and city officials in many states.

Tami was included in The Commercial Appeal’s “2017 Person of the Year” recognition. And this year, she was named as “one of 18 Tennesseans to watch” by The Tennessean and The Commercial Appeal. She has been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post, MLK50, the New Tri-State Defender, the Memphis Daily News and the Memphis Flyer. She has been heard on Al Jazeera, NPR and BBC Radio. She has been an introductory speaker for social justice leaders Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem and Minister Louis Farrakhan.

The protracted protests stemming from the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland and so many others led Tami to realize that standing outside the seats of power and asking for change was not working.

Change comes faster from being on the inside. Consequently, in 2016 Tami ran in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Tennessee legislature. Losing to the incumbent John DeBerry only strengthened her determination for public service. She is currently a candidate for the Shelby County Commission, District 7.

A hero leads by example and provides endless encouragement to others. A hero continues to push the boulder up the mountain, even when the task seems hopeless. A hero needs tireless energy. Charisma helps.

Despite death threats and the seemingly intractable racism that she fights, Tami Sawyer’s heroic spirit sustains her and changes our community. For her bravery and commitment, Women of Achievement salutes the 2018 Woman of Achievement for Heroism, Tami Sawyer.

Rachel Sumner Haaga


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

Rachel Sumner Haaga

In 34 years, Rachel Sumner Haaga is the first living abolitionist honored by Women of Achievement.

Determined to raise awareness and help victims of human sex trafficking – modern slavery in all its ugliest forms – this Memphis native works every day to rescue women and children from the grip of evil predators.

While working two jobs for pay – as a waitress at Huey’s and a first responder with Shelby County Rape Crisis – Rachel devoted long and late hours for years to build the non-profit Restore Corps into a funded program where she could devote full time to advocacy, training and services. Her work is singular in the Memphis area and she is called on regularly by law enforcement and victims’ advocates to assist traumatized and scarred trafficking survivors.

After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Memphis in 2004, Rachel joined Youth with a Mission, an international volunteer organization for five and a half years. Over half of her time with the organization was spent in Cambodia where she worked with SALT Academy, Sports and Leadership Training, introducing soccer and leadership training to females ages 3 to 20 in orphanages as well as safe-house rehabilitation homes for victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. She still is in contact with women from the soccer teams she coached.

Upon return to Memphis, Rachel joined a local nonprofit called Operation Broken Silence working on human trafficking as the assistant director of the anti-trafficking team in 2010. Restore Corps was birthed out of that team in 2013 as Rachel worked at restaurants to pay her bills and dedicated every possible moment to building awareness and resources to help victims of trafficking.

Her team wrote and lobbied for 19 legislative changes, all of which are now in effect and which have made Tennessee a national leader in anti-trafficking law.

Gradually support grew for Restore Corps so that by 2016 Rachel could serve as the full-time executive director of the program, housed at Memphis Leadership Foundation. Last year the first part-time staff member, a survivor, was hired, joined this year by three more staffers and the opening of Restore Corps’ first transitional residence for adult survivors. Services for children include coordinating with foster parents.

Restore Corps is designated as the official Single Point of Contact agency for West Tennessee, part of a state system to assure each individual survivor’s needs are coordinated and met through a collaboration of nonprofits, direct service providers and law enforcement agencies.

She has been an expert panelist at human trafficking forums at the University of Memphis Law School, University of Memphis Social Work Department, Union University Social Work, and University of Tennessee Health Sciences, and is an appointed member of the Tennessee Human Trafficking Task Force.
In addition to work on the statewide response plan, Rachel has contributed to national studies about services for human trafficking survivors. She speaks regularly to agencies and community groups.

Once a month, she joins partners who meet with women who have been arrested for prostitution for a program called Lives Worth Saving. Organized in December 2014 by Restore Corps, Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County District Attorney’s office, the class seeks to honor, educate and empower people exploited by the commercial sex industry. Those who complete the class are eligible to have current prostitution charges dismissed.

Rachel talks with them about victimization and asks who they know who has been a victim – of rape, of physical abuse, childhood sexual abuse, homicide. She helps them recognize the ways they are victimized by the sex industry.

Rachel says, “No little girl at 4-years-old wants to grow up and sell her body. We just have to believe that as a society. There are different elements of victimization – or at least vulnerabilities – that currently exist or have existed in their lives that put them where they are right now.”

Restore Corps’ vision is “to see a slave free community through the rehabilitation and empowerment of survivors and a community galvanized against human trafficking.” Rachel Sumner Haaga, 21st-century abolitionist, is determined to lead that charge.

Kamillia Barton


For a woman who, facing active opposition, backed an unpopular cause in which she greatly believed:

Kamillia Barton

Kamillia Barton survived a traumatic childhood, found the courage to escape an abusive marriage, and has gone forward to become a fighter in the battle to help others struggling to remove themselves from domestic violence.

When she was nine years old, Kamillia realized that her parents were addicted to drugs. Off and on throughout her childhood she and her siblings lived with various family members. At times the family was homeless. Kamillia would stand outside corner stores asking for money to buy food her siblings and herself. Many nights they went hungry. After she and her sister were held hostage at gunpoint by drug dealers, they entered the foster care system. Kamillia stayed until age 15. She left foster care to live with an aunt. It was another negative environment. She dropped out of school in the ninth grade and by age 17 had moved into a place of her own. She supported herself with jobs in the fast food industry and started seeing a man ten years older.

They married and together had two children, now both teenagers. Her husband became verbally, psychologically and physically abusive. Over the years the abuse continued. She would call the police but he was always gone when they arrived. She was told that because there was no crime, they could do nothing. She never followed up and he was never charged.

But in 2010, her life threatened, she took the children and they left, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. At the time, she worked for a furniture company and her employer gave her free furniture. As it turned out, the gift was not free and soon she was again in an abusive situation and once more found herself and her daughters being threatened. She stayed because she saw it as the way to support her daughters.

But In December, 2012, she fled Memphis and found safe haven with her uncle in Sledge, Mississippi. She wanted to work on her GED and in discussing her plans with supportive family and friends, she decided to return to Memphis and its resources. She made her way to the Family Safety Center and credits Melissa Farrar and Felica Richard for helping her find the strength to work with the Center to keep her family safe and gave her hope.

Since that time Kamillia Barton has transformed her life. She has completed her GED, graduated from Southwest Community College, and is now studying social work at the University of Memphis. She has worked as a victim’s advocate for the Family Safety Center and the YWCA Immigrant Woman Services Blue Print for Safety program.

A tireless volunteer, she has participated in the Rhodes Mentoring Program, the Lemoyne Owen College Domestic Violence Awareness, St. Jude’s Domestic Violence Awareness and the Southwest Community College Violence Awareness programs, to name just a few.

Wanting to increase her effectiveness, Kamillia has participated in numerous trainings and seminars on topics including advocacy training, facilitations skills, nonprofit leadership, representing LGBTQDV victims, teen dating and violence preventions and child sexual abuse prevention and response.

In November, 2016, Kamillia founded and became first executive director of STEPS, Successful Transitions Empowering Permanent Safety, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Through STEPS, she works to help families dealing with domestic violence through situations she has faced and overcome. To achieve maximum effectiveness, STEPS maintains strong external relations with partner organizations, volunteers and other supporters in the community. Her goal is that people seeking to survive and escape abusive relationships do not slip through the cracks. She connects individuals with local resources. For meetings with social services agencies, legal services, medical appointments, the search for housing, or help with finances, she goes with them as is their personal advocate, available 24/7. If for some reason she can’t go, she makes sure they have Uber or Lyft.

Kamillia’s dream is for STEPS to serve the many. She would like to have a facility to house those in need, a safe place to live in a more permanent environment than shelters can provide until lives are stabilized and on track. She understands the importance of being able to deliver promised services so for now information about the program is spread by word of mouth. Though basically a one woman operation, STEPS has already served over 30 clients. As resources grow, services will expand.

As a courageous survivor, she is passionate. Kamillia says, “I believe my entire life has prepared me for advocacy and working with individuals who have faced trauma and adversity…Fortunately, I beat the odds. I am not what studies and statistics said I could be. Therefore, I am confident your past does not determine your future; your life’s challenges and traumatic experiences are not in control of your destiny…My greatest passion now is in advocacy. I love to motivate and inspire victims to become survivors and to have hope. It is my calling, and now my life mission.”

Kamillia Barton stands up and speaks out at every opportunity. And Women of Achievement thank her for having the courage to do so.

Bessie Vance Brooks


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

Martha Ellen Maxwell


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Martha Ellen Maxwell

In a lifetime of service to the Memphis community – paid and voluntary – Martha Ellen Maxwell was a key engine in many landmark projects, particularly in the performing and visual arts.

Born Dec. 9, 1928, in Dyer, Tennessee, Martha Ellen Davidson was named for her two grandmothers. Her father died when she was 14 and she stepped in to help with two younger sisters when her mother went to work to support the family. Those early responsibilities at home and the discipline of piano studies helped prepare Martha Ellen for decades of leadership and achievement.

This high school valedictorian came down to Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) to continue piano studies – and began to get better acquainted with her next door neighbor from back home – dental student John Rex Maxwell. The two married in 1948; Martha Ellen continued her studies, was president of Chi Omega sorority and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She served for three years as assistant dean of women, then became what she herself termed “an East Memphis housewife” birthing four sons and joining the volunteer circuit. She served the Memphis Symphony League as member and later president. As chair of the once-staid symphony ball, she demonstrated a streak of initiative by changing it from a regular ball to a “BACH-A-NAL,” an auction that cleared an unprecedented $107,000 in one year. She became the first woman president of the symphony’s governing board, the Orchestral Society. Projects she initiated include the Decorator Showcase and the Symphony Pops. Martha Ellen was instrumental in getting Alan Balter as symphony conductor.

During her Orchestral Society presidency, she had also been a Memphis in May volunteer and in 1977 founded a river-bluff symphony concert now known as the Sunset Symphony. Martha Ellen was part of groups that formed to save the Orpheum Theater from demolition and to rescue the Levitt Shell.

In 1979, Martha Ellen gave up her role as a volunteer for the arts to become executive director of Memphis in May. She recalled that the organization had “two desks….. I was handed a folder with $46,000 in bills and told we had no money in the bank.” So she initiated the idea of commissioning Memphis artists to create MIM posters, the sale of which would benefit the festival. Four years later, MIM was in the black and had a budget of $1 million. She left over differences with some board members. She said, “. . I was an assertive woman who wanted her own way, and there were some young male board members who didn’t know how to take that.”

Invited to speak to the then-all-male Rotary Club, she listed three things wrong with Memphis: racism, male chauvinism and turf protection. She has said that she never felt discriminated against.

This from the “token” white woman on the MIM board, the first female president of the Memphis Orchestral Society and the third female member of the Downtown Rotary Club!

After MIM, she took on the challenge of raising funds to expand the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. She  surpassed the Dixon goal of $1.8 million by $200,000! From 1985-1987 she was the first executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Film, Tape and Music Commission. She went on to become executive director of the symphony for 10 years – leading from 1993-2003 through the search for a conductor, construction of the new concert hall downtown and challenging funding times. Along with that job, in the 1990s she served for over eight years as volunteer president of the Tennessee Summer Symphony, organized to employ the state’s professional musicians to take classical and semi-classical music to smaller, rural communities.

As one nominator said, “In a time when women leaders were rare and a woman’s path to community leadership was marked by discouragement, criticism and injustice, Martha Ellen Maxwell succeeded.”

After her death on March 6, 2014 at age 85, The Commercial Appeal saluted her in an editorial, saying in part: “Because of Mrs. Maxwell’s tireless advocacy, and her fundraising and managerial skills, Memphis is indeed a better place for the visual and performing arts communities.”

Elaine Blanchard


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

Elaine Blanchard

Elaine Blanchard is a writer, mother, minister, nurse, hospice counselor and actor. But most of all she is a storyteller. Elaine believes in the power of story to help us share our humanity and understand the deeper meaning of our lives.

She knows through her own experience that understanding our own story and sharing that story with others connects us to ourselves and our humanity. That knowledge has led her to a vision of using storytelling to bring self-understanding and hope to women in prison.

Elaine grew up in a rigidly religious and misogynistic Southern household. She married, became a minister, and gave birth to a daughter. She left that marriage after realizing that she is a lesbian. She became a nurse, and then a hospice nurse. She returned to the ministry, she found love and formed a life-partnership with Anna Neal. In 2000, she graduated from Memphis Theological Seminary.

While presenting the Children’s Sermon, at First Congregational Church, she began telling stories of her childhood. And people listened.

During this time her understanding of the power of story grew and she took it to other areas of her life. Having a mother with Alzheimer’s, dying in a care facility, Elaine recognized that giving voice to her mother’s story could help caregivers see her mother as a person, She created a brief story narrative of her mother’s life to “introduce” her mother to caregivers. This was hung over her mother’s bed, along with pictures from her mother’s life and caregivers began to interact with her mother in a more humanized way. This led to the work of “I Am” Stories, which helps provide narratives for families to honor loved ones at the end of life.

In 2010, she gathered childhood experiences with racism, sexism, abuse and dogmatic religion and turned them into a play. The critically acclaimed For Goodness Sake has toured extensively. Her second play, Skin and Bones, is an exploration of the shame, power and beauty of the human body.

Since 2010, Elaine has been working behind bars with women inmates to produce Prison Stories, a story listening/story telling process that gives voice to the stories of the lives of the women.

Why? Elaine grew up in a home with three brothers and a father. For Elaine, it was a “rigid, judgmental and misogynist environment….I grew up feeling like I was invisible.”

This led Elaine to a vision of using story as a way to help women adapt to life behind bars and learn to avoid the behaviors that put them there. “My inspiration to go to the prison and listen to women’s stories comes from the pain of being dismissed, neglected and forgotten.”

Each series of Prison Stories includes 12 volunteer inmates who sit in a circle two days a week for 16 weeks and talk about themselves and issues. Each group reads two books: coming-of-age story Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Zen writer’s guide, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. As they discuss the books, the women open up about themselves. At night they keep a diary. Themes tend to repeat with each group – body image, food, mothers, unintended pregnancies, life in prison and violence. At the end of the series, a readers’ theatre piece is created and performed by actors. There is a prison performance as well as performances on the outside.

The prison system hopes to reduce repeat offenses. Women who have shared their stories say the experience helps them understand their pasts and to feel like their lives matter.

Next, Elaine will work with clients of Friends for Life, to help people living with HIV tell their stories.

Cristina Condori


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

Cristina Condori

Domestic worker, wife and mother, Cristina Condori is an immigrant from Argentina who places her beliefs on the line.

Since moving to Memphis almost a decade ago, she and her family have faced numerous obstacles. Economically, times are hard and they struggle monthly to make ends meet. Her husband lost his job in Memphis and currently works out of town. Her former clients can now only afford help once or twice a month so she constantly hands out cards and flyers seeking opportunities for housekeeping and childcare work. She barely earns $240 per week to help support a household that includes two daughters, a brother and a guest.

Her two daughters are both excellent students involved in many different volunteer activities. And Cristina has also been working to improve her English and takes every opportunity to practice.

Yet, Cristina somehow finds many hours every week to do what she can to bring greater justice to others who have been in situations similar to her own.

She volunteers with Workers Interfaith Network, and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, as well as many other groups dealing with justice issues, women’s issues, and health causes.

Cristina’s convictions are strong, so strong that she was willing to take the fight for freedom and the rights of citizenship in the United States to Washington, D. C. There, on September 12, 2013, she joined women from 20 states to blockade the intersection outside of the House of Representatives to protest the House’s inaction on comprehensive immigration reform to treat women and children fairly.

Cristina and the other women were prepared to be arrested and arrested they were. This historic act of civil disobedience included the largest number of undocumented immigrant women to ever willingly submit to arrest. The 105 women who were arrested wanted to draw attention to the fact that women and children constitute three-quarters of immigrants of the United States and disproportionately bear the burden of the failed immigration system.

On her blog the next day, Cristina said “The decision and oath that we took together was a great action… Women of all ages, professions and immigration status sat in the street under a hot morning sun of Washington, D.C., in front of the Capitol and Senate as part of a civil disobedience for a Comprehensive Immigration Reform that is fair and humane. We were there for the people we love and for all those who suffer from this immigration system that is broken and that continues to divide families. It was about OUR freedom! But also it was about the freedom of all immigrants, of all children who were separated from their parents, of all workers who were and will continue to be deported each and every day….”

One of her nominators, Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp, herself a Woman of Achievement for Determination honoree for seeking fairness for workers, says Cristina Condori is ”one of the most determined, energetic, and brave women that I have ever known…She is truly a leader, inspiring other immigrants to take risks and speak out for greater justice.”

Participating in civil disobedience for a just cause takes courage. It is an intimidating prospect for anyone, but for an immigrant so much more is at risk than for a citizen.

Cristina Condori truly deserves to be honored for her commitment to work on behalf of immigration reform and her courage to stand up for her beliefs.


Christina Condori continues to aid refugees fleeing from Mexico and Central America.