Madame Florence Cole Talbert McCleave


for women whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Madame Florence Cole Talbert McCleave

Florence Cole Talbert McCleave seemed to have all the ingredients for a successful career in opera: talent, desire, training, and critical acclaim. And while she briefly achieved her dream on European opera stages, she was unable to find the roles she sought in the United States as an African American soprano in the 1920’s. Instead of a career in opera, she spent the latter part of her life teaching and spreading her love of music in Memphis for three decades.

Born in Detroit in 1890, Florence was surrounded by music. A grandmother and both her parents were singers, and her mother had traveled with the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers. Florence studied piano from age 6, adding voice lessons after her family moved to Los Angeles. She was captivated by opera after she attended a performance of Aida as a teenager. She later told an interviewer: “I was impressed by the opera as nothing had ever moved me before. I sat breathlessly watching the artists, and as the opera progressed, a desire (an impossible desire, so it seemed at the time) took possession of me. I wanted to sing the title role in Aida. I could see myself thrilling large audiences as I myself was thrilled.”

Focused on that goal, Florence graduated from the University of Southern California School of Music, spent a year traveling with Hahn’s Jubilee Singers, and was married briefly to musician Wendell Talbert. She then settled in Chicago and enrolled at the Chicago Musical College where she was the first black commencement soloist in 1916. She continued her training while giving concerts in U.S. cities until she traveled to Europe in 1925 for additional training. Her breakthrough performance was her debut in Cosenza, Italy in March 1927 in the title role of Aida. She is believed be the first black woman to perform that role with a professional European opera company. For several months, she lived her dream on stages in Paris, Rome, and other European cities, earning praise such as “her voice of velvety quality was such as to overwhelm the audience.”

Florence returned to the United States that fall, resuming her concert career in African American communities but never breaking into opera despite being known as “The First Lady of Grand Opera” by the National Negro Opera Guild. She eventually taught voice and music at several historically black colleges in the South. She moved to Memphis in 1930 after marrying Memphian Dr. Benjamin F. McCleave, whom she met while touring.

It was here that Madame McCleave built her second musical legacy, one of teaching, and community involvement. She was an organizer of the Memphis Music Association, a branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians. She brought renowned artists including Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and George Shirley to sing in the African American community while The Met was touring to Memphis in a white-only venue. Her students included Stax great Carla Thomas and Manassas High graduate Vera Little, a mezzo-soprano who became the first African American singer to perform for a pope in 1959.

Madame McCleave died in 1961 at the age of 70. Another chapter began 50 years later when the new Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty visited the Pink Palace museum and spotted Madame McCleave’s story in an exhibit. Canty wondered why he had never heard of her. He described the experience as a “wakeup moment” that led Opera Memphis to collaborate with community partners in creating The McCleave Project – an effort to celebrate Madame McCleave more broadly in Memphis and to deepen the opera company’s engagement with issues of equity and diversity in opera. The McCleave Project began in 2017 with performances by African American singers in several primarily African American neighborhoods. A year later the project launched fellowships for young directors and conductors of color. Two McCleave Fellowships were awarded in 2018 and 2019 before the program was put on hold during the pandemic. Madame McCleave was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2019.

Opera Memphis is preparing to resume the fellowships, and the fruits of the program will be visible in May when the first McCleave Fellow — Dennis Whitehead Darling – returns to direct La Boheme. Fittingly, the production will not be set in the traditional setting of Paris in the late 1830’s. Instead it will be Memphis in 1915 and inspired by artists working on Beale Street at the time.

Madame McCleave died on April 3, 1961.

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson and Lillian Wyckoff Johnson

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson
Lillian Wyckoff Johnson

for women whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson  (1835-1883) and Lillian Wyckoff Johnson (1864-1956)

When Mr. Johnson’s daughter, Miss Lillian Wyckoff Johnson, returned to Memphis from school in 1887, she became a teacher in the Hope Night School.  When her father moved away from the city she was not only principal of the school but, with her father’s enthusiasm for the success of the institution that had become an expensive one to run, this brave young teacher collected from Memphis merchants $1,500 every year for its maintenance till it became one of the public schools in 1892. She taught in Memphis at the Clara Conway Institute for Girls and also the Hope Night School for working students, beginning as a teacher there and becoming principal and business manager,  finally making it part of the Memphis city school system.  The school was a pioneering effort to give working people better lives. 

This mother-daughter duo were leading pioneer activists of their generations in Memphis. 

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson, born to a prominent family and married to a wealthy merchant, believed that women should be public activists as were men in a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. 

In the 1870’s she founded the Woman’s Christian Association, the first city-wide group of women reformers, which worked to improve the lives of women and children in Memphis. Elected first president, she served until her death in 1883. The organization pioneered what later would be called “social housekeeping,” the idea that women had to work to clean up society as well as the home. 

They started projects to provide immediate relief but also to educate women with skills for paying jobs. Their most daring project, and the most controversial, was trying to rehabilitate prostitutes by teaching them employable skills such as sewing and domestic work at a time when respectable women and men despised them. 

She was also a key leader in bringing the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to Tennessee. In the 19th century, WCTU members saw themselves fighting the sin of alcohol, but also as fighters against domestic violence and the break-up of homes, because prohibiting alcohol was seen as key to solving these problems. You could say it was the largest domestic violence organization of the 19th century.

 Elizabeth Johnson saw the WCTU as a way to help women and families and to change society. Johnson became the first state president, but died at the age of 47, only six months after being elected.

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson had eight children, including her daughter, Lillian Johnson, who became an activist in education for women and the poor. 

Lillian pioneered in higher education for women, graduating from the University of Michigan with a B.A., then doing graduate studies in Germany and the Sorbonne in France. She received her Ph.D. at Cornell University in 1902, all at a time when these academic achievements were almost unheard of for women. 

She taught in Memphis at the Clara Conway Institute for Girls and at the Hope Night School for working students, beginning as a teacher there and becoming principal and business manager. She collected $1,500 from Memphis merchants each year for Hope’s maintenance until finally making it part of the Memphis city school system. The school was a pioneering effort to give working people better lives.

Lillian taught at Vassar College for four years and while there laid the foundation for the Southern Association of College Women, started in 1903. In 1904 she became president of Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, a position she held until 1908. Then she returned to Memphis and taught history at what was later Central High School.

As chair of the Education Committee of the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Nineteenth Century Club, she was one of three women seen as the primary leaders in getting the West Tennessee Normal School (now the University of Memphis) established in 1912. Johnson saw this as an opportunity for women to get a higher education and become teachers, as most Normal School students were women. 

She became interested in rural education and moved to Monteagle, in Grundy County, TN, in 1915, one of the 10 poorest counties in the nation. For the next 17 years she worked to educate and make life better for south Appalachian farming families. After failing to establish a cooperative of her own, she donated her house and property in Summerfield in 1932 to Myles Horton who began the Highlander Folk School there with a policy of being an integrated institution from the time it opened. The school became known for its activism in training leaders in labor organizing and civil rights.

Lillian later retired to Florida, where she cofounded the Bradenton Community Welfare Council, made up of African-American and white women’s organizations; it established an African-American Youth Center and worked on other interracial projects. 

Lillian Wycoff Johnson died there in 1956 at the age of 96, having never married.         

Women of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park


for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

The Women of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park

The power and might of the entire federal government seemed to be aimed at the city of Memphis.

The nation’s ballyhooed interstate highway system had mapped a route due west for Interstate 40. It would plow across the state from Bristol, driving to the Mississippi River right through mid-Memphis neighborhoods and homes and levelling about 24 acres of the 170-acre Old Forest of Overton Park.

The path had been drawn in 1955 on a route that today is named Sam Cooper Boulevard and ends at East Parkway. The interstate would separate the Memphis Zoo from the rest of the city’s unique urban green space which also housed Memphis Art Academy, Brooks Art Gallery, a nine-hole golf course and amphitheater in addition to its most unusual ecological feature – the rare old-growth forest.

Local, state and federal leaders, local newspapers, even the City Beautiful Commission arrayed in full-throated support of the plan, convinced that expressways and parking garages would lure shoppers back to an emptying downtown and relieve traffic congestion.

After ignoring advice since the 1940s urging limits on eastward expansion, they had watched downtown businesses close or move, following the growth into East Memphis and suburbs.

But a cadre of determined Memphians organized to stop the destruction I-40 would cause.

They formed the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) and got busy waking the city to what the roadway would mean. While men were certainly engaged and male attorneys certainly were critical to the eventual victory, it was women who fought first and fought the fight every day — working long hours on letter-writing campaigns, filing, phone calling, raising money, consensus building with neighborhood groups and more.

It was women who urged the citizenry to get involved to prevent what local poet Agnes Bowe called “the rape of Overton Park.”

It also was the women who received the most criticism: death threats, political retribution and derisive name calling, including that infamous line about being “little old ladies in tennis shoes” meant to intimidate them and diminish their voices. That phrase really had enduring power. Wikipedia uses it to this day to describe “a group of local citizens, spearheaded by a group of elderly women dubbed the ‘little old ladies in Tennis shoes’ by multiple media outlets, (who) began a campaign to stop this construction.”

These women fought City Hall, state government, federal government, local courts, newspapers, the chamber of commerce and other powerful business interests in their determination to protect our environment and preserve neighborhoods in Midtown.

Learn their names: Rosemary Alderdyce, Betty Buchignini, Mary Evelyn Deupree, Grace Gordon, Marie Handy, Sara Naill (Sally) Hines, Martha Lackner, Lou Packer, Laura Rodenbaugh, Nadine Smith, Sunshine Kidd Snyder, Anona Stoner and Helen Witte. 

Others worked hard but were afraid to be known publicly.

CPOP president Marie Handy wrote, “The proposed route through Overton Park would not just ruin the park: It would annihilate it. That which is removed is annihilated and it is impossible to ‘restore it.’” She also said that “highways were needed for ‘progress’ but parks, created by God, for the people, should not be ignored and destroyed by men.”

Opposition to CPOP was so intense that information about many participants and donors of art and money was kept secret and anonymous for fear of harm to them or their spouses’ workplaces or careers. Some worked behind the scenes, their names never known.

Local businessman William Pollard accused the activists of having hands smeared with blood because of traffic deaths that would increase without the expressway. He quoted Bible scripture comparing expressway opponents to the mob who shouted for the head of Jesus.

Years later, a surviving CPOP leader, Sunshine Snyder, wrote for the West Tennessee Historical Society a paper titled “The Finale and True Story Behind the Scenes of ‘The Citizens to Preserve Overton Park.’” Sunshine describes the work of a loosely-knit but dedicated group, maybe 6 or 12 meeting together at a time during the mid-1960s, making signs, stuffing and stamping envelopes, organizing rallies.

Mary Evelyn Deupree, who recruited Sunshine, and Sally Hines had been fighting the expressway encroachment for years. Lou Packer led the nucleus group called the Committee for the Preservation of Overton Park in 1957 that later became CPOP legally and formally. Anona Stoner, who moved into Memphis with experience successfully organizing opposition to multi- lane highway projects in Ohio, became the defacto CPOP coordinator, willing to work 24/7 at her home answering the phone and serving as contact for donations, records and communications. She wrote letters, researched freeway opposition tactics and spoke at Memphis City Council meetings to defeat resolutions.

Sisters Martha Lackner and Laura Rodenbaugh joined early on. Young and enthusiastic, they began in 1971 to sponsor fundraising events: an art auction, a spaghetti supper, a booth at the Fairgrounds flea market, a Pink Palace event and a sale at Albertson’s.

Local news media continue to support the expressway. While news stories said the route through the park would be a 20-foot wide strip, CPOP’s Bill Deupree paid $1,000 for an ad in The Commercial Appeal explaining it would be two 20-foot strips with a median between and that an interchange on the eastern edge would take several hundred feet.

Sunshine and others put together rallies trying to get the truth out, such as one on the park’s eastern edge when Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock came to support the expressway. “My children and other children were on hand to demonstrate that the truth was that the expressway at the eastern border of the park was much, much larger and wider than had been reported. To demonstrate the true width, the children strung a roll of toilet paper the entire several hundred feet the expressway would take.” A newspaper reporter watching the kids remarked he had no idea the road would take so much of the park.

Over the next few years CPOP’s opposition held up final approval of various plans, including tunnels, walkovers, landscaping.  In the meantime, not believing a women-led grassroots organization would finally win, homes and businesses in Binghamton and just west of the park were bulldozed.

On Dec. 1, 1969, at 5:45 p.m., CPOP held a special meeting of about 10 including spouses. Local attorney Charlie Newman and Jack Vardaman with a Washington D.C. firm agreed to take the case pro bono. Gasps were heard when the lawyers said $2,000 was needed to get started but the vote to go ahead was 10-0. Bill Deupree and Sunshine’s husband James each put up $1,000. Two individuals had to be named plaintiffs beside the organization. Bill and Sunshine agreed to be named. Sunshine wrote: “This was an awesome step for so few of us….
There was not a penny in our coffers.”

CPOP lost at the district court level and again on appeal at the 6th Circuit.

CPOP appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Oral arguments were heard on Jan. 11, 1971.

On March 2, 1971, the justices ruled in favor of CPOP 8-0. But the fight still wasn’t over.

CPOP’s case had shown such a mess of legal interpretations and administrative missteps that the justices sent the matter back to the West Tennessee district court who sent it to the Transportation Secretary Volpe for review “under a correct understanding of the law.” Two years later he approved a tunnel under Overton Park!

Further action on the redesign dragged on but failed. Finally, on Jan. 9, 1981, Gov. Lamar Alexander submitted a request to the federal government to cancel the route through Overton Park and release the $300 million in its construction budget to the City of Memphis for other transportation uses.

The request was approved on Jan. 16. After some 25 years, the battle for Overton Park was finally over!

The favorable Supreme Court ruling in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe is taught as a “Genesis” case about environmental law. It has been cited 28,127 times.

Today, generations of Memphians and visitors enjoy the trees, trails and fields of Overton Park.

Without the courage, determination and savvy of these women imagine: Traffic on six lanes of interstate concrete, roaring through Overton Park, with the zoo and Rhodes on the north side and a polluted forest on the south.

Even if you can imagine it in a trench, the roadway sunken out of sight — the noise and huge lights and fumes and the massive barrier of it leave animals, birds and people terrorized. It becomes the definition of unwelcome and unrelaxing. And the memory of a historic, unique urban park for solace and natural beauty and learning is only – a memory.

Let us celebrate and honor the story of the preservation of Overton Park as a dramatic account of women’s leadership and persistence that is important to know during this National Women’s History Month and always.

Cornelia Crenshaw


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.