Florence McIntyre

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Florence McIntyre

The beloved Memphis College of Art Professor Emeritus, Burton Callicott wrote, “A pure truth throughout my years has never ceased to strike me with enormous force is that but for McIntyre’s zeal and initiative, there would be no Memphis College of Art in the city today. The seed which sprouted and grew into Memphis College of Art was planted by Florence McIntyre in 1914.”

Born in 1878 into a prominent Memphis family, Florence McIntyre dedicated her whole life to the making and teaching of art to mid-southerners no matter what the circumstances.

After her education in Memphis, Miss McIntyre studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, attended classes of William Merritt Chase in Philadelphia and spent several summers at the artist’s colony at Woodstock, NY. Her extensive travels brought her into contact with many artists and exhibitions.

In July 1914, she invited prominent women to organize the Memphis Art Association. The first exhibition was held at the Nineteenth Century Club in November of that year. Memphians got to see works of Ralph Blakelock, Winslow Homer, George Inness and other famous artists of the time. Memphians’ interest in art began to grow.

Mrs. Bessie Vance Brooks, Woman of Achievement for Heritage in 2014, donated money in memory of her husband Samuel Hamilton Brooks to build an art museum in Memphis. With no other funds available, the Memphis Art Association became the first support group for the Brooks Museum. Florence McIntyre with her broad experience and education was hired to be the first director and the first exhibition opened there July 10, 1916.

Life in the art world is often complicated and political. There developed a disagreement between one art patron who wanted a $50,000 memorial to her husband to be placed on the Parkway, while another patron objected to having it located opposite his home. Florence McIntyre was caught in the middle of the dispute, which resulted in Abe Goodman, the chairman of the Brooks Art Gallery, being replaced and Miss McIntyre resigning in 1922 after six years as the first Director of the museum.

McIntyre’s unemployment didn’t last long. Her childhood friend and neighbor, Rosa Lee, asked her to become the director of the Free Art School then meeting at the Nineteenth Century Club. The enrollment grew so fast Miss Lee deeded her house at 690 Adams to the city in 1929 and later purchased the Woodruff-Fontaine house and repeated her generosity. Later the stables of the two houses were joined together in 1931 to make room for more classes. The school came to be known as the James Lee Memorial Academy of Arts and the enrollment grew to 700 students.

Through McIntyre’s leadership the program of art offerings grew from drawing, painting and sculpture to include crafts: batiks, pottery, metal and jewelry work. Departments of design and interior decoration were added. The stable became home to the performing arts named The Stable Playhouse. The school became an important civic enterprise and many graduates went on to become well known artists around the nation.

In 1935 controversy returned. Miss McIntyre hired George and H. Amiard Oberteuffer, a husband-and-wife team from Philadelphia to teach. With them came a spirit of modernism that she could not control, and dissention arose. During this time Miss Rosa Lee died and the split grew. Burton Callicott who taught at the school said, “In the spring of 1936 a schism occurred. The split was totally vertical: the Oberteuffers and other teachers, some Board members and some of the students left and founded a new school, The Memphis Academy of Arts (now Memphis College of Art).”

In spite of this Miss McIntyre continued her school at the Lee House until 1942 when Robert Lee died and the support of the Lee family stopped. But that didn’t stop her dedication; she then moved her classes across the street to her own home and kept the school going for 20 more years until her death May 15, 1963 at age 84. She taught art for 40 years to more than 10,000 Mid–Southerners.

Callicott, who was part of those who left with the modernists, says Miss McIntyre never spoke to him again but he is emphatic that Florence McIntyre should be honored. Mr. Callicott said, “There should be a memorial to Florence McIntyre. For many years, Florence McIntyre was art in Memphis.”

Barbara Hewett Lawing

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Barbara Hewett Lawing

Whether meeting with mayors, running political campaigns, or working for the rights of women or the rights of workers, Barbara Lawing approached the task at hand with preparation and passion.

Barbara was born in Eaton, Ohio in 1938 and grew up there on a farm with five sisters. She became a nurse and married Allan Akehurst in the early sixties. After his death, she moved to Memphis with her two young children. In 1964 she married Frank Lawing. Together, the couple had three more children.

Barbara always believed strongly in equal rights for all and during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, these beliefs led her to take action. She and five other homemakers approached then Mayor Henry Loeb and demanded that he support the union’s quest for equal rights and equal pay for these city workers.

In the seventies, her belief in equality and justice for all took her to the forefront of the women’s movement. She chaired the Legal Status of Women in Tennessee Committee for the League of Women Voters and she served as Legislative Coordinator for NOW. In 1977 she was a delegate to the National Women’s Year Conference in Houston. A member of Women in Construction and the Coalition of Labor Union Women and Tennessee’s only delegate who belonged to a labor union, Barbara participated in the Labor Caucus.

She gave voice to her beliefs in justice and equality on the political scene as well. Barbara held leadership positions in the Shelby County Democratic Women and the Tennessee Women’s Caucus and was parliamentarian for the Tennessee Federation of Democratic Women.

She helped manage several pivotal campaigns including those of both Harold Ford Sr. and Harold Jr. A long-time friend of Al Gore’s, in 1992 she worked in the Clinton-Gore campaign. She was a mentor and advisor to many local politicians including City Council member Carol Chumney and state Representative Mike Kernell.

In a 1973 article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar she said, “The American housewife has so much to give and whatever her party preference, she should get involved. Political decisions often affect women and mothers more closely than they do men, especially local issues such as education. We need to have some say-so but we have very little.”

While committed to breaking down barriers and seeking justice, Barbara’s family was always her priority. Saturdays and Sundays were reserved for the family and during the week, she always tried to be home for dinner. Her goal was to attend only one evening meeting a week, but during political campaigns, all bets were off. When her children were young, she often bundled them up and took them along.

In the late seventies and early eighties, the family fell upon hard times financially. Realizing that higher education would be a means to greater earning power for her family, Barbara enrolled at the University of Memphis. Working through the University College, she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She went on to teach economics for almost twenty years. She felt that athletes who attended her classes didn’t have the background they needed to be successful students, so for at least ten years she volunteered to tutor football players.

According to Carol Chumney, Barbara inspired her to “reach for her dreams.” A long-time friend said, “Barbara’s commitment in life was to women, to people of color and for people who were downtrodden, to make their lives better. Another said, “She believed in breaking down barriers, lived her values, and had a strong sense of social justice and equality for gender and race.” Following her death in 1998, Harold Ford Sr. said, “She was one of the warriors who went beyond race and said, ’I want what is right.’ She was just the greatest.”

Over the course of her sixty-eight years, Barbara Lawing worked tirelessly and passionately to seek justice and equality for all. Her life stands as an example and inspiration for women now and in the future.

Joan Fulenwider Strong

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Joan Fulenwider Strong

Born in 1907, Joan Fulenwider Strong spent the next 92 years living a full life at a fast pace, contributing to her community, working in her family’s business and raising a family.

In 1920 when Joan was 13, her family started a business, National Pressed Steel. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she joined the family business in 1938 at the age of 31. She served as president of Mental Health in Industry, a group in which was the only woman.

At the time of her death she was still active as a financial consultant and Vice President of National Pressed Steel. Not content to merely working as an executive in the steel company and raising her family, Joan became active in many civic organizations. By the time she entered local politics she’d been selected as one of Woman’s Home Companion ten national Women of the Year and as Woman of the Year by La Sertoma International.

From 1960 through 1967, Joan served in the Tennessee House of Representatives. During that time she cosponsored legislation to restore civil rights to the mentally ill and cosponsored the repeal of the so-called “Monkey Law” which prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. A member of the Memphis/ Shelby County Safety Council, she worked for a law requiring newly manufactured cars have seat belts.

Joan worked during Mayor Ingram’s administration to get HUD programs and activities established in Memphis. She worked diligently with foreign students to assist them in getting their education. After World War II, she helped over 450 Holocaust survivors and displaced persons relocate to Memphis and the surrounding area. Joan always spoke her mind and said that she had “no reservations” about legislating consolidation of city and county schools and city and county taxes, issues that we’re still discussing.

Joan was a woman of tremendous energy. An article in the Press Scimitar in the spring of 1960 says, “In her spare time she looks after two Arkansas Delta Farms of 1,500 acres….. Mrs. Strong seems to manufacture spare time and is also active in the National USO and serves on the boards of the YWCA, the City Beautiful Commission, and was the Pilot Clubs Woman of the Year.

Joan had a lighter side as well. She loved hats. Her collection of over 450 hats included antique hats for women as well as a few hats for men. She is quoted again in the Press Scimitar as saying, “Hats are Good For Health.” She was pleased to make presentations on the topic and would bring along as many at 75 hats to display during these sessions. Her advise to women: “If you’re depressed, go out and buy yourself a new hat. It will make you feel better.”

As Joan Strong grew older, she maintained her energy and enthusiasm for life. She enjoyed celebrating her birthdays with bold feats. At age 83 she spent the night roaming the streets of Memphis on a motorcycle. At 85 she glided in an ultralight. She was quick to spin tales of family and about Memphis. She even knew Elvis and spoke of him as a “dear boy.”

She passed away in 1998. Joan Fulenwider Strong lived a life that is an example to us all. She served her community through hard work, consistent effort and with good humor and for that we honor her tonight.

Emma Currin Barbee Wilburn


for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Emma Currin Barbee Wilburn

Rising from poverty, Emma Wilburn became one of the most successful and wealthy African-American businesswomen in Memphis in the early part of the 20th century. Her life is doubly impressive because she did this as a widowed mother of four during the height of the system of segregation, when the Jim Crow laws worked to keep African-Americans poor and at the bottom of society.

Born in Lauderdale County, Tennessee, in 1876, she was one of 13 children of former slaves Hudson and Harriet Currin. Before she was 25, she was widowed twice and left to raise four children on her own. Through hard work, she opened a small hotel in Halls, Mississippi, in the late 1890’s. But she saw more opportunity in nearby Memphis and moved there, working for the Zion Cemetery Company, which ran the oldest African-American cemetery in the city. The funeral business was one of the few ways African-Americans could be successful under segregation, since it involved the African-American community apart from white Southerners.

In 1914, she bought an existing funeral home and renamed it the Emma Wilburn Funeral Home. She made her business a success by hard work and showmanship. In a riding habit, on a white horse, she led each funeral procession to the cemetery. She was so successful she opened another funeral parlor in Dyersburg, Tennessee. She leased her Memphis funeral home to the National Burial Association in the 1930’s and bought 75 acres of land she named New Park Cemetery in South Memphis. At the time cemeteries for African-Americans in the South were small and hidden. According to historian Miriam DeCosta Willis, New Park was one of the premiere cemeteries in the whole South. At New Park, Emma Wilburn continued her funeral escorts and made the cemetery a community center for African-Americans. Each year, she held a popular community-wide memorial celebration, as well as sponsoring other social activities regularly, which made her well-known and popular. She founded the Tennessee Burial Association for African-Americans.

She taught her children the funeral business. Her son, Hudson Barbee, opened the Barbee Casket Company; her youngest child, Cutie, opened the Cutie Thomas Funeral Home in Lauderdale, Tennessee; her daughter Minnie and son-in-law Johnson Rideout opened a funeral home in Los Angeles, California.

In order to attend the opening of the business, in 1935 Emma Wilburn bought an American Airlines ticket. At this time when segregation was in place and airlines did not have Jim Crow seating, local authorities told her that her ticket was not valid. But she got in touch with the airline headquarters in Chicago to protest and won, becoming the first African-American woman to fly from Memphis on American Airlines and desegregating the airlines for future black passengers.

She died two years later in 1937, a wealthy, successful woman. For her strength as a single mother running a business, for her exceptional business ability at a time of severe disadvantage for African-Americans, and for her courage, we honor her tonight as our 2015 Woman of Achievement for Heritage.

Mary Magdalene Solari


for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Mary Magdalene Solari

Less than a year after her birth near Genoa, Italy, in 1849, Mary Magdalene Solari was brought to Memphis by her parents. She went on to leave a legacy of artistic, civic and philanthropic achievements that still enrich our lives here and abroad – more than 150 years later.

Mary’s first art teacher was Mrs. Morgan at the Memphis Female Institute. Mary studied with her until 1882 when she left for Florence, Italy, for her health and to study under Casioli. Traveling abroad as a young woman was extremely uncommon during this time, but Mary knew the importance of this transition. The opportunity to study under a well-known artist would prove to be of personal as well as historical significance.

After only a short period of study, Casioli took notice of Mary’s undeniable talent and encouraged her to enter her works to the Academia de Belle Arte. During this era, however, the Academy would never accept the work of a female artist. The Academy was worried that women in the program would be distracting to the males studying there. Casioli insisted that Mary’s work be shown, and he submitted a few pieces anonymously. One of her black-and-white drawings won first prize while a drawing of the heads of peasants also took a prize.

When the Academy learned of the artist’s true identity, they wanted to cancel the prize but the press took up the subject. Historian J. P. Young wrote: “It ended by the young girl receiving her fairly earned prizes and honor and opened the door of the academy to women.”

Solari was an American woman artist making Italian art history and changing art education for all women. As Young wrote: “(I)t was found that men and women stimulated one another to their best. So the Academy remained co-educational, made so by a young Memphis woman through the real merit of her work.”

In 1890, she received her Master of Arts degree and entered the Beatrice Exposition, which was open to women and had 1,000 entrants. Solari won the highest awards in watercolor. The diploma and letters of merit entitled her to teach art in the government schools – fulfilling another of her goals.

After receiving her Academy degree, Mary returned to Memphis in 1892 and she continued to be a face of change for gender equality. In 1893, she broke another barrier – she was the only woman and Southerner on the Chicago World Fair’s Board of Judges for the Fine Art Department.

In 1897, at the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition in Nashville, she was in charge of the art exhibit in the pyramid-shaped building Memphis built to exhibit its wares. She also won prizes for oil painting, watercolor, crayon, landscape and antique collection. Her pictures hung in both the Memphis pyramid and the Parthenon built by Nashville to house general arts exhibition.

Mary opened a school of fine arts in the Randolph Building where she taught oil, water color, pastel and tapestry painting.
She began a series of Lenten Art Salons “with a view to gather the different choice flowers in literature, music and art…in Memphis.”

She became an advocate for those without a voice. She lectured on prison reform, juvenile offenders and industrial training in schools. She became an outspoken critic of horrid conditions at the City Hospital, erected for steamboat transients. She lectured on “If Christ Should Come to Memphis and Visit the Hospital What Would He See?” She sparked the interest of city officials and the press – a new hospital building was the result.

During World War I she lectured to sell war bonds to Memphis’ Italian community.

In her last years, she spent much of her time on her 176-acre farm on the Wolf River on the Raleigh Road east of National Cemetery. She raised Berkshire and Poland China hogs, chickens and Kentucky horses. There she was surrounded by her collection of treasures: antique tapestries including one of Abraham sacrificing Isaac; 14th century gold candelabra, Florentine lace, Etruscan curiosities and a set of silver from India.

In 1928, a year before she died, Mary made yet another contribution to the future of Memphis. She donated her home, art collection, and land, valued around $150,000, to Christian Brothers College. To this day, the school houses her art collection, and the sale of her home and land provided funds to purchase the land upon which Christian Brothers University sits today on Central Avenue in Midtown Memphis. Tennessee Gov. Malcolm Patterson called her gesture “a permanent investment in the interest of good citizenship.”

Mary Magdalene Solari changed the narrative of women’s contributions to society. She paved the way for women in the world of art, and she was a voice for change in the Memphis community.

Lil Hardin Armstrong and Alberta Hunter

Lil Hardin Armstrong
Alberta Hunter

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Lil Hardin Armstrong and Alberta Hunter

The Heritage Award this year is being given to two Memphis women who became renowned in the world of popular music: jazz legend Lillian (known as Lil) Hardin Armstrong and Blues icon Alberta Hunter.

As a jazz pianist, singer, composer, and bandleader, Lil Hardin Armstrong became the leading woman in early jazz, and an outstanding pioneer in a field dominated by men.

Alberta Hunter, nationally and internationally known as a Blues singer and songwriter during her lifetime, was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011.

Both were born in the 1890’s and grew up in Memphis in the early 20th century. But while Lil Hardin studied piano at Mrs. (Julia) Hook’s School of Music and spent a year at Fisk University, Alberta Hunter learned music at church and on the streets, and left high school without graduating. Both felt pulled to Chicago, Alberta in 1911, Lil in 1918, where a vibrant African-American musical culture was being shaped. Both struggled to begin their careers in the cabarets and nightclubs springing up there—Lil Hardin Armstrong as a jazz pianist and Alberta Hunter as a Blues singer. By the 1920’s Lil Hardin was a pianist with the well-known King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, playing the Dreamland, the premiere Chicago club for African-Americans. There she met and married a trumpeter in the band named Louis Armstrong. Though they would later divorce, she kept his last name.

Also by the 1920’s, Alberta Hunter was a top singer in the Chicago clubs and cabarets, including the Dreamland, where she and Lil Hardin met and became friends. That decade Alberta added recording to her career, becoming a sought after recording artist, and began writing songs for herself and others. One of the first was “Down Hearted Blues,” which became Bessie Smith’s first smash recording in 1923. She branched out to other places, playing clubs and doing musical theater in New York, Paris, and London, becoming a national and international star.

Lil Hardin Armstrong was also recording by the 1920’s. As a pianist she was sought after for recording sessions, and she recorded from 1925-1927 as the pianist on Louis Armstrong’s classic “Hot Five” Okeh Records recordings, a celebrated series of records in jazz. She also composed some of the Hot Five’s best-known songs, including “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” She branched out and became the leader of her first band, the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band. She would create at least eight bands throughout her career, one of them an all-women band.

By the 1930’s, both women were broadcasting nationally on the radio, as well as playing clubs and recording. Lil Hardin recorded for Decca Records as a swing vocalist and band leader, and accompanied many singers on the piano, including Alberta Hunter. Hunter was at the height of her fame, a celebrated international star. Hardin Armstrong was the most prominent woman in jazz.
In the 1940’s, Alberta Hunter toured with the USO, singing for the troops in North Africa and Europe, while Lil Hardin Armstrong and her band continued to play in Chicago. Recording contracts and opportunities dried up and both women looked to other careers. Lil Hardin Armstrong trained as a tailor but ultimately kept creating clothes only as a sideline for friends. She briefly owned a restaurant and taught piano and French. She never gave up music, performing both as a soloist and accompanist. A version of her song “Just for a Thrill,” became a major hit for Ray Charles, while Peggy Lee and other top singers recorded her songs. In 1971, she collapsed and died while playing on an NBC-TV tribute show for Louis Armstrong.

After the war, Alberta Hunter started volunteering at the Joint Diseases Hospital in Harlem. Her experiences there and her mother’s death in 1954 acted as the catalysts for her to begin a career in nursing. She got her high school GED, went to nursing school, and had a 20-year nursing career at New York’s Goldwater Hospital. But she never totally gave up the Blues. After retirement, at over 80 years old, she began singing at clubs in limited engagements, becoming a national figure again. The Tennessee governor in 1978 declared an “Alberta Hunter Day,” and the Memphis Mayor presented her with a key to the city. Speaking at the Orpheum in response, she shocked the audience as she openly spoke out against the racism she faced growing up in Memphis and that still existed in the 1970’s. She continued in the Blues until her death in 1984.

Both Lil Hardin Armstrong and Alberta Hunter were outstanding women. Both pioneered public musical careers for women and left a rich legacy of musical contributions in jazz and the Blues to the world. They richly deserve to be named Memphis Women of Achievement and honored with the Heritage Award for 2016.

Eleanor “Dicky” Ehrlich

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Eleanor “Dicky” Ehrlich

Eleanor “Dicky” Weile Ehrlich never stopped feeling lucky that she survived nine different German concentration camps.

So she never stopped teaching about the Nazi Holocaust. ‘‘There is too much to tell,’’ Dicky said. ‘‘There is so much yet not told. Just remember, it all did happen … and please keep it from happening again.’’

Dicky began life in Berlin where her mother owned a needlework shop and her father was a traveling manufacturer’s representative. As Hitler’s restrictions and persecution of Jews intensified, she and her parents moved in 1933 to Amsterdam where Dicky became a neighbor and sometime playmate of Anne Frank.

But soon the Nazis ended Holland’s 100-year neutral history by marching in with occupation soldiers. Eight times Dicky answered the door late at night to find Gestapo soldiers there. Eight times she talked or sang to them and they went away. A ninth time she didn’t awaken until two soldiers were looming over her bed.

The Weile family was loaded onto cattle cars to a camp in southern Holland. It was February 1943. The family was separated. Within eight months, her mother Tilla, who was assigned to tend to young children in the camp, caught scarlet fever. With only aspirin and sulfur available as medicines, Tilla died in November and was cremated. Dicky never forgot the smell of the smoke that blew over her as her mother’s body was incinerated.

Meanwhile, the Philips Company had persuaded the Germans to build in the camp a factory which would keep Dutch Jews in Holland as long as possible at a time when Jews from all over Europe were being shipped to death camps in Germany and Poland. Dicky always believed it was her training to build intricate radio tubes for V1 and V2 rocket weapons that delayed her departure to Auschwitz for a critical 10 months and saved her life. She was convinced that if she had arrived sooner, she would have been gassed with thousands of others.

Dicky reported with pride that she and her fellow inmates were able to damage about 60 percent of the instruments they made, without being detected, assuring that many of the German rockets never reached their mark.

In June 1944, she was shipped to Auschwitz, Poland, where three large chimneys turned the night sky orange and the stench of burning flesh was unreal. Though it was a while before she knew it, Dicky arrived in the notorious camp on D-Day, June 6. Her hair clipped short, number 81020 tattooed on her left arm, she was soon loaded on cattle cars again, bound for Reichenback in east Germany. She was moved four more times as the Germans dodged advancing Allied forces and kept the inmates manufacturing parts.

Finally, she arrived near Hamburg for the hardest work yet – shoveling mud to dig tank traps, ditches three yards wide and three yards deep, shaped like a V. Guards stood above, snapping whips to speed the exhausted workers.

Dicky was barely holding on. Fortunately, the Swedish Red Cross made a deal with Hitler to trade some concentration camp prisoners for German deserters. Dicky was on the second transport to Sweden. It was three days before the end of the war. She was 23 years old and weighed 88 pounds. She had spent over 2-1/2 years in nine concentration camps. She later learned that her father had been killed in the Auschwitz gas chamber on Oct. 1, 1944.

In 1948, she agreed to move to Atlanta to live with an aunt. Her ship arrived in the New York harbor as July 4 fireworks blasted. She met and married Sidney Ehrlich and began life as a wife, mother of two children and unstoppable public speaker. She became a deeply patriotic American who always flew a giant flag on Independence Day.

Wherever she lived in the United States, Dicky shared her story. She also taught teachers how to teach about the Holocaust: ‘‘To teach this to young people and to impress upon them how very lucky they are to live in this country with all of its freedoms, we must dig a little deeper – what does it do on a personal basis when all the freedoms we take for granted are taken away?’’

She described the forced walk of 2,000 inmates and 3,000 cows through snow for six days with paper shoes to wear and one slice of bread and snow to eat. She told about a trip that should have been three hours that went on for 11 days and nights, standing in a freight car with 209 other prisoners with three pieces of bread, no water and no modesty when allowed under a stopped train car to ‘‘use the bathroom’’ at gunpoint.

In 1997, she was interviewed and videotaped for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Dicky Ehrlich died in Memphis on May 1, 2001. She was 78.

Friend and colleague Rachel Shankman, regional director of Facing History and Ourselves, said, ‘‘No one who ever met her will ever forget her. What made her special to the children and teachers was her ability to bring that hard history to life, and talk about it with humor and resiliency.’’

A teacher who heard Dicky speak in Arkansas several years ago wrote a two-page letter expressing the power of Dicky’s testimony in changing her life. ‘‘I know that I will move through the world differently now. I hope that I will be a better person. I believe that what you have done here is to become a rescuer. Somehow, some way, your words continue to make me grow.’’

Ethel Niermeyer

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Ethel Niermeyer

Ethel Niermeyer spent 48 years working through the YWCA to broaden opportunities for girls and women and to stimulate awareness of and action on civic affairs.

Born in Mitchell, South Dakota, in 1887, she obtained a B.A. from Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls and completed additional courses at Columbia University in New York. She started work in 1912 as a Girl Reserve Secretary in Akron, Ohio. Later she worked for the Y in Honolulu, spent four years at the YWCA in Istanbul, Turkey, and worked for the YWCA National Board.

Ethel came to Memphis in 1932 to serve as executive director, a position she held until her retirement in 1955.

During those years of racial segregation, she encouraged the development of a Negro YWCA branch, which was at first under the direction of an all-white board of directors. Under her leadership the board moved from having one African-American representative on a board to full participation in policy-making groups within the association. From racially integrated groups within the YWCA, the association became the only place in Memphis where integrated meetings of non-YWCA members could meet.

The Public Affairs Committee worked with people from other organizations to develop better state laws on adoption and to promote a hospital in Memphis where black doctors could intern. This was finally developed at E.H. Crump Hospital.

A Public Affairs Forum was established which held dinner meetings where local, national and international questions were discussed from various viewpoints and honest disagreement could be voiced without rancor.

Teen clubs were organized through the public schools and a summer camp was established in Hardy, Arkansas. Under Ethel’s directorship, a capital funds campaign was conducted to build a new central office and program building at 200 Monroe and a branch at 1044 Mississippi Blvd.

Work with girls and young women started in north Memphis in the Manassas area and the first black person was employed to work at the central office.

During World War II, the YWCA was one of four USO locations in Memphis. The YWCA oversaw activities at all four locations and remained open after the other three were closed.

An international group established by the YWCA led to the development of the International Group of Memphis and a group on equal rights for women led to the establishment of the Women’s Resource Center. Many outstanding women of Memphis received their early encouragement to become involved in civic affairs through their involvement at the YWCA, including 1987 Women of Achievement Heroism recipient Frances Coe.

Juanita Williamson

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Dr. Juanita Williamson

Some are born with a gift for scholarship. Others are born with a gift for teaching. And a few special people are born with a gift for both. Juanita Williamson was one of these. Internationally recognized in linguistics, reading, and education, she is equally remembered for the special talent she brought to the classroom.

Born in 1917 in Mississippi, Juanita Williamson was raised in Memphis in a book-filled home and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. A scholarship recipient, she graduated summa cum laude from LeMoyne College in 1938 and earned an M.A. from Atlanta University in 1948.

As early as fifth grade, Juanita Williamson knew she wanted a Ph.D. When she enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Michigan, one of her professors made it clear that he didn’t believe linguistics was an appropriate pursuit for women. He also implied that he didn’t think much of minorities. Though she felt her work deserved otherwise, he failed her first paper. Determined to never have that happen again, she began to take down every word and memorize her notes. She received her Ph.D. in 1961.

She joined the faculty of LeMoyne-Owen College in 1947 and later became Professor of English and Chair of the Humanities Division. Publications include A Various Language (1971) co-authored with Dr. Virginia Burke and a standard reference in linguistic studies. Her reputation led to serving on the boards of the American Dialect Society, the Modern Language Association and others. She received a Rockefeller Fellowship, was honored by the Ford Foundation and the Black Studies Association. An Amistad Research Grant led to study of Southern and black speech. She presented papers at Princeton, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. She found time for community activities such as the YWCA, Girl Scouts and League of Women Voters.

Juanita’s interest was the structure of language and grammar, her deep concern for the achievement of African-American children and the correlation between their learning performance and their speech. This led her to examine the effect of speech customs of the South on students. She was widely acclaimed for her research. Though she could have gone elsewhere, she chose to stay at LeMoyne-Owen. Committed to the role of historically black colleges she felt she could make a real difference in the lives of her students. According to author Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, academic excellence at LeMoyne-Owen was synonymous with Dr. Juanita Williamson. She was tough, witty, brilliant and humble. And she cared about students in and out of the classroom, providing financial assistance for those who fell on hard times.

She died in 1993, but her greatest gift is still giving – empowering her students who continue to contribute today. They pass on her torch of knowledge and strength of character.

Marion Keisker

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Marion Keisker

Until her death in 1989 at the age of 72, Marion Keisker blazed a trail for women in many fields, including broadcasting, theater, writing, the military and women’s rights.

In the 1950s, while working as an assistant to the owner/producer of Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records, Sam Phillips, she was the one who had first contact with Elvis Presley when he came to record a song for his mother. “Call this kid Elvis,” she told Phillips, “I’m telling you, Sam, he’s got something.” The rest is history.

Her broadcasting career includes 10 years (1945-55) at the top of the ratings with her WREC radio show Meet Kitty Kelly. At one time, she was responsible for daily programs on every radio station in the city. Hers was the first voice heard on WHER, the first all-female radio station in the country, where she read the news from 1955 to 1957.

Shortly thereafter, Marion joined the Air Force with direct commission as a captain. After training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, she was assigned to Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, where she was the only woman officer (other than nurses). In January of 1959, she was transferred to Ramstein AFB in Germany, overseeing the largest armed forces television station in the world. Next, she served as the only woman line officer at Patrick AFB in Florida. She retired in 1969 as a major and returned to Memphis.

It was then that she became deeply involved in the women’s movement. As founder and president of the Memphis Chapter of NOW from 1973 to 1974, Marion led the fight to “de-sex” the classified ads in local newspapers so jobs would no longer be classified by gender. Promoting the Susan B. Anthony silver dollar, she said, “They finally gave us our money, now let’s show them its effect on the economy.” Through her membership in the Women’s Media Group, she fought discrimination against women in the media.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she became known for her theater/broadcasting work. She was voted the city’s Best Actress three times. She also led the “Shy Persons Club” and organized to keep Prairie Home Companion on WKNO.

Always on watch, Marion’s frequent letters to the editor of local newspapers often spotlighted incidents of discrimination against women. In one such letter printed in 1986 in The Commercial Appeal, Marion responded to the issue of a lax attitude toward sex discrimination saying, “… gains are accepted as the norm by those who benefit from them. Those who grow weary in the fight for equality (i.e. justice) relax. Progress slows or is reversed.”

Marion Keisker’s spirited service to the community and steadfast crusade for equal rights has benefited all women of Memphis and Shelby County. Her call to remain diligent is a strong reminder that the fight is not over.