Mary Treadwell, Georgia Harry and Patricia Walker Shaw

Mary Treadwell
Georgia Harry
Patricia Walker Shaw
Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Mary Treadwell, Georgia Harry and Patricia Walker Shaw

To the casual observer the similarities in the three women honored this year as recipients of the Heritage award may seem superficial. But Patricia Walker Shaw, Mary Harry Treadwell and Georgia Harry were alike in many different ways.

First, they were all three insurance businesswomen. Mary Harry Treadwell and Georgia Harry were the first women in the world to establish and successfully manage an insurance agency. Two generations later, insurance was still generally considered a man’s world when Pat Walker Shaw started at the bottom to learn the family business. In 1983, she became the first woman to head a major U.S. life insurance company.

As young women, Pat, Mary and Georgia expected their lives to follow very traditional patterns. All three married. Pat and Mary had children. Pat attended Oakwood School and went to Fisk, where she majored in business administration and became a social worker. Mary and Georgia attended Miss Higbee’s School and made their debuts in Memphis where they expected to live comfortable and traditional lives. But Mary’s husband died, and Georgia’s marriage failed.

After Timmons Treadwell’s death in 1909, Mary and Georgia continued to manage the family business, a cotton factoring and wholesale grocery establishment. But their banker pointed out that the popularity of the automobile would create a demand for insurance. So the two young women who had never ever written a check got a rate manual, read it and began writing insurance through Chubb and Son and Fidelity Casualty Company.

At first, people gave them business because they felt sorry for them — all alone, trying to educate two young boys — but their customers soon developed respect for their frugality and business acumen. Treadwell & Harry wrote the surety bond on the Harahan Bridge, guaranteeing that the work would be completed on schedule. As their business flourished, they were able to hire male secretaries and in 1920, after writing insurance for almost everyone else of note in Memphis, Mary wrote a policy on her own automobile. It was a good idea. A police officer observed at the time that Mary always had her foot on the gas, never on the brake.

After World War I, George and Tim came into the business, but their mother and aunt remained active until 1935. Mrs. Treadwell died in 1946. Mary Harry, the quiet intellectual, lived to be 92. In 1971, the agency they founded was sold to Cook Industries, but the family regained control in 1983.

The same year saw Pat Walker Shaw’s untimely death, a tragedy in every sense of the word. She was head of one of the largest black-owned businesses in the South and had risen to national prominence as the first woman president of the National Insurance Association. Her accomplishments were remarkable: she held memberships with nearly 25 organizations, boards and commissions, including two government appointments. She was the first woman ever to serve on the Memphis Light Gas & Water Board.

Because of the segregated schools of Memphis, the Walkers sent their young daughter to a Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, New York. Pat graduated from Fisk University and moved to Chicago, then later to Nashville where she was a social worker. In 1966 she, her husband Harold and their young son returned to Memphis where Pat took an entry-level position at Universal Life, an insurance company founded by her grandfather in 1923. The facts belie the popular notion that she “inherited” her job at the top. She worked in the data processing and the accounting departments, and she developed new marketing strategies for the company.

When the board of directors chose Pat to be the CEO in 1983, A. Maceo Walker said in an interview, “Girls can do the job just as good.”

Pat Shaw’s unique leadership abilities were recognized and appreciated by all Memphians; however, let us not forget she was a powerful black woman. Her deepest loyalties were to the black community. She said, “Most of the people we serve, the people who are our major customers, are grassroots folk who make $15,000 and below. We are, first of all, responsible to them.”

As we hold in our memories these three extraordinary women who mastered the insurance business and left their marks on this community, let us listen to the words of Pat Walker Shaw: “Women have to accomplish more; we have to prove ourselves over and over.’

Dorothy Sturm

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Dorothy Sturm

Artist, educator and mentor all describe Dorothy Sturm’s achievements. She excelled in each of these areas during her lifetime and her impact continues to be felt.

Born in Memphis in 1911, Dorothy Sturm graduated from St. Mary’s Episcopal Girls’ School in 1929. Her father gave her a bus ticket to New York, where she arrived in 1930 to study art.

She returned to the Delta in 1938 to become an instructor at the Memphis College of Art where she taught until she formally retired in the late 1970s. During her teaching career she continued to create her own art. In addition to her abstract pieces, she is world-famous in the medical community for her watercolors of blood cells, which were first published in a 1953 text.

These are the facts surrounding the life of Dorothy Sturm. But they in no way fully describe the impact she had both on the art world and on her students and friends.

One of her many supporters said, “Dorothy is a woman who knew no boundaries. She persevered, challenged and excelled in all arenas in which she participated, regardless of obstacles or opposition. She was an artist whose expressive mode was always on the edge pushing our vision and intellect.”

In the 1950s, when abstract art was new, Dorothy expressed herself in the traditional mediums of painting and drawing. She also forged ahead and applied abstract technique to many other media, which was unheard of at the time. She was one of the few Tennessee artists to be represented by a New York Gallery and her work was exhibited nationally. Simultaneously, in the early 1950s she was making meticulous renderings of blood cells from slides assigned to her by Dr. L.W. Diggs. One nominator says, “To my knowledge, no one has ever approached the quality and excellence of her renderings of cell formations.” The book, The Morphology of Blood Cells was published in 1954 and is now in its fifth edition.

Her impact as a teacher and mentor cannot be understated. She was a role model for women artists at that time. Countless letters from former students and colleagues of both sexes state that contact with Dorothy changed their lives.

A female student from the 1960s says, “She was an avid conversationalist with a broad range of subjects. She was warm, tolerant, accessible and interesting. Her powerful presence was felt by students and colleagues alike.” These sentiments are echoed in letters from working artists and arts educators from across the country.

Dorothy Sturm did not just teach art skills. She taught self-discovery and respect for others, the wonder of nature, pursuit of excellence and how to maintain a spirit of inquiry and curiosity.

Dorothy Sturm died in 1988 but the power of her life’s work continues to ripple through the art world.

Julia B. Hooks

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Julia B. Hooks

The life of Julia B. Hooks spanned 90 years and encompassed much of the history of the United States. Julia was born free in 1842, the daughter of a former slave. Her mother, Laura, was the daughter of Captain Thomas F. Marshall of Kentucky and his slave. Laura had been given her freedom when she married a man who was free.

Julia also was a musical prodigy, accompanying her mother in vocal concerts on the piano at the age of six.

It was the experience of traveling with her mother to perform that made Julia aware of the importance of color in the thinking of Americans. While her mother and older sister Mary were quite fair, she was copper-skinned like her father. Sometimes on trains heading to engagements Julia and her mother were mistaken for a mistress and little slave. The impression this made on the child never left her as an adult.

After the Civil War Julia’s family moved to Berea, Kentucky so that the children could receive an education at the integrated Berea College. After three years of college, during the last year of which Julia taught music to other students, black and white, she left to go to Mississippi. At that time in the history of the United States, Reconstruction brought new equality, and indeed in Mississippi, dominance by the numerically superior blacks. It offered exciting opportunities for the young teacher, including working in Blanche Bruce’s successful campaign for U.S. Senator. Reconstruction’s changes were short-lived, however, so Julia moved to Memphis in 1876.

Julia’s life in Memphis was centered on children, civil rights, and music. She taught in the public schools, but finding them to be inadequate, started her own private Hooks Cottage School. Jim Crow laws were steadily eroding the gains made by the Civil War, but Julia, educated beyond most women of her time, refused to accept the new restrictions on the rights of blacks. Time after time, she entered a theater only to be ejected because she was sitting in the “white folks” section.

Julia persisted in trying to achieve civil rights for all people. Her grandson, Benjamin Hooks, former president of the NAACP, is an example of the extent of her influence into the present day.

Among other civic activities, Julia and her husband Charles helped raise funds to establish a much-needed Colored Orphans and Old Folks Homes. Julia organized the Liszt Millard Club to provide a musical opportunity for blacks in a segregated world. She operated her own music school. She taught harmony to one student who would become famous, W.C. Handy. She was called “the angel of Beale Street” by Lt. George W. Lee because of her selfless work on behalf of the poor. Along with her husband, Julia administered the first juvenile detention home in the city for black youths. Even when Charles Hooks was shot and killed by one of the inmates, Julia’s work with the juveniles continued.

Julia B. Hooks’ legacy for the future is the determination to make this a more just world for all people, of all ages and races. Her courage inspires us to fight prejudice and to enhance the world around us.

Ida B. Wells and Myra F. Dreifus

Ida B. Wells
Myra F. Dreifus
Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Ida B. Wells and Myra F. Dreifus

This year we honor posthumously two women who achievements still enrich our lives. Although the details of their lives appear dissimilar, they complement one another.

One was a Southerner who moved north to complete her life; the other was a Northerner who moved south. One was black, the other white. One was born in the 19th century, the other in the 20th. One was born a slave, the other free. One was Christian, the other Jewish. One had finished her work in Memphis before the other was even born — and although their lives overlapped for some 27 years in these United States, they never knew each other personally.

And yet they are strangely alike. One was repeatedly described as “militant,” “courageous,” “determined,” “impassioned,” and “aggressive” while the other was referred to as a “damn busybody,” a “fighter,” and as the “conscious of Memphis.” Each did what she could to address the problems of her day — and Memphis will never be the same again because of each of them.

Ida B. Wells was born in 1862, six months before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, to slave parents in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was educated first at Rust College where her carpenter father was selected to the first Board of Trustees, and later at Fisk University. She was orphaned by Yellow Fever at 16, along with six younger brothers and sisters whom she raised.

Ida began her career as a teach in a one-room school in rural Mississippi; continued in the rural schools of Shelby County after she moved to Memphis in 1884; and was regarded as a competent and conscientious teach in the Memphis schools for seven more years.

When she was only 22 and traveling to her school at Woodstock in Shelby County, she took on the historic action of challenging discrimination against black passengers on railroad trains. Ida refused to comply when the conductor tried to remove her from the ladies’ car into a dingy smoking car with the rest of the black passengers. When he grabbed her arm she bit his hand! After the conductor and baggage man attempted to relocate her forcibly, she got off the train at the next stop, returned to Memphis, and sued the railroad for failing to provide the “equal” in “separate but equal” accommodations.

She prevailed in the local court and was awarded $500 in damages. But the railroad appealed the case and in 1887 the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the decision, charging the costs to a bitterly disappointed Ida.

That same year she discovered her journalistic abilities when she began to write at first for a church paper, and then for a small black Memphis newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight, later becoming editor and part owner. Articles criticizing the Memphis Board of Education for separate, inferior Negro schools led to her dismissal as a teacher in 1891. Unperturbed, she began to write under the pen name “Iola,” publishing details of unfair treatment of Negroes.

On March 9, 1892 when three young black businessmen were lynched in Memphis, Ida wrote in her newspaper that Negroes should leave the city. Many took her advice and she urged those that remained to boycott the street railway. For three months Ida’s scathing pen was turned on the white population of the city who allowed and condoned lynching and practiced racial hypocrisy. Her newspaper was blamed for paralyzing downtown business. Fury erupted one evening when an angry mob wrecked her press, destroyed her paper, and would have lynched her except that she happened to be in Philadelphia at the time covering a convention for her newspaper.

She never returned to Memphis. Instead she wrote and lectured in the cities of the North and East and throughout England, Scotland and Wales, becoming the most eloquent spokesperson in the international fight against lynching. She would continue her incredible crusade against black oppression in the pages of newspapers and on lecture platforms for the rest of her life.

Ida moved to Chicago after her marriage to Ferdinand Barnett, a prominent lawyer and journalist, and made that city her home until her death in 1931. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ida B. Wells is not that she fought lynching and other forms of cruelty, inhumanity and injustice. It is rather that she fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight, with the dedication of a crusader, long before other men or women of any race entered that arena.

Born in Flint, Michigan in 1904, Myra Finsterwald Dreifus, a woman described as both serene and impulsive, moved to Memphis with her husband Fred in 1936. At first she “tried the social bit.” A friend had told her, “You’ve got to learn to play cards, or you’ll be a lonely old woman. “Well, I tried it,” Myra later reported, “and finally I told my friend I’d take my chance with old age and loneliness.”

While raising three children, she soon became involved in many volunteer projects, including the Memphis Junior Red Cross and the National Council of Jewish Women. In the early 1960s, while president of the Mental Health Association (which she had helped to found — “we were trying to do something for disturbed children,” she said — she discovered widespread hunger in the schools.

Despite federal economic surveys showing that at least 40,000 Memphis children could qualify for free or reduced-rate lunches, fewer than 700 children were getting them. Even more startling was the discovery that surpluses of both food and money were being turned back to the National School Lunch Program while in grade school lunchrooms children without food were required to remain seated, seeing and smelling the food of their more fortunate peers until the lunch period was over.

Haunted by this discovery, Myra confronted clubs, church groups, women’s groups — anybody who might listen and help — and gradually, steadily the movement known as the Fund for Needy School Children surfaced as an organization able to sway politicians, school officials and a large segment of the public.

Between 1946 and the early 1970s, her small band of volunteers grew to almost 400 working in 57 schools, and the number of children enrolled in the Free Lunch Program increased from 700 to 25,500 children.

In 1967 Myra and her volunteers maneuvered the organization into the Shelby United Neighbors (forerunner of the United Way of Greater Memphis) despite the objection of some that they did not meet all agency requirements: they had no office, no salaried staff, no expenses!

Her movement still has no headquarters, no salaried employees, no regular meetings and almost no structure. In Myra’s words, “It remains a creative movement in which each volunteer can bring something special to the program.”

With the free lunch program set up, she and her volunteers worked on providing clothes, eyeglasses, breakfasts, milk formula and layettes for the poor.

Myra helped found the Riverview-Kansas Day Care Center and worked hard to build constructive and harmonious relations between the various communities that make up our city She chided at least one mayor publicly for campaigning on the promise to represent all the people of Memphis and then admittedly speaking for only the majority during a time of racial strife.

In December 1968, while attending a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, she suddenly realized that the conference wasn’t going to deal with the problem of hunger. In the midst of the session, she fired off a registered letter (written on plain notebook paper) to President Nixon, challenging him to declare a national emergency on hunger and to expand the food stamp program “so everybody could be eating by Christmas.”

Most of Myra’ efforts were visibly successful; some were not. But having done what she could to resolve a problem she reflected the same equanimity regardless of the outcome.

Myra Dreifus, more than any other one person in the remote or recent past, personified the ability to transcend all the barriers that frequently fragment our community — racial, economic, educational, political, religious, social — in her effort to make Memphis a better place for all of us. Actually, she did not so much transcend (meaning to rise above) them; rather she moved through them with serene determination, probably because for her they did not exist.

In her activist years, Myra referred to herself as a “professional volunteer.” Later she enjoyed continuing education so much her husband referred to her as a “perennial freshman.” Others called her “the Children’s Crusader.” She deserves to have all Memphis call her “friend.”

Myra Dreifus took her chances with old age, dying at 82 in December 1986. She was not lonely.

Our Heritage Award for the year 1987 honors jointly Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Myra Finsterwald Dreifus, who in doing what they could, discovered what a difference they could make. All stand tall in Memphis because we stand successively on the shoulders of these rather frail women with strong wills. We celebrate their well-lived lies, treasure their respective examples, and cherish their memory as “women of achievement.”

Yellow Fever Heroines and Martyrs

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Yellow Fever Heroines and Martyrs

Memphis was just a half-century old when it faced the most devastating crisis of its history — the decade of death and desolation brought on by the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s.

The deadly disease was no stranger to our city. In several previous epidemics many hundreds of Memphians had suffered yellow fever’s chills, fevers, merciless pain and agonizing death. But no one was prepared for the unprecedented horror of the outbreaks that visited Memphis in 1873, 1878 and 1879. When it was all over, the combined casualties of these epidemics in a city of 50,000 residents totaled some 24,000 cases of the disease and 7,745 deaths.

The cause and care of this mosquito-transmitted disease were then unknown. With each new outbreak, thousands fled the stricken city, many never to return. Other thousands stayed, may to suffer and die.

Our heritage award honors all the women who responded so gallantly in Memphis’ time of disaster. They were women of various races and creeds, women from all stations of life, who worked tirelessly, visiting homes, distributing medicine and food, nursing the sick, caring for the orphaned, comforting the dying. The names of most of these women have been lost with time, but we are fortunate to know of the deeds of some individuals, and to have a record of the work of women of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal religious orders. We will be naming these women for you, for their names and their actions symbolize the achievements of all of those we honor.

The epidemic of 1873 began in early August when two men infected with yellow fever were put ashore in Memphis from a northbound steamer. Within days the disease was rampant in the city. Among the first women who gave their lives fighting the fever were these, who died that August:

Sister Gabriel
Sister Bonaventure
Sister Mary of Nazareth

By September 25,000 people had fled Memphis by boat, train or wagon. And we know that September was the month that Sister Gertrude died.

In October, at the epidemic’s peak, at least 50 to 60 people were dying each day, and the total of dead had reached 2,000 by the month’s end. We know some details about two of those deaths.

Emily Sutton, a 27-year-old prostitute who practiced her profession under the name of Fannie Walker, had abandoned “the trade” but remained in the city to nurse victims of the dread disease. She fell victim herself on October 4, 1873.

At the other end of the social scale was Mattie Stephenson, a college student who came from Illinois on October 5 to join her classmate, Lula Wilkinson of Memphis, as a volunteer nurse at the Walthall Infirmary. On October 18 Mattie died of the fever. On the marker of her grave at Elmwood Cemetery are the words, “She died for us.”

Here are the names of three other caregivers who died in October of 1873:

Sister Mary Joseph McKernan
Sister Martha Quarry
Sister M. Magdalen McKernan

The 1878 epidemic was the most frightful one. Some 30,000 people, recalling the 1873 outbreak, fled Memphis in terror within four days after the first death was reported in mid-August. The first death of someone caring for the ill recorded in 1878 was that of Sister Veronica Gloss, in August.

By September the city was, in the words of one eyewitness, “a waste of death, destitution and destruction.” Amid sweltering heat and scenes of indescribable horror, people died in such numbers that corpses had to be buried in shallow trenches. Visiting the homes of the stricken, relief workers would find only silence where whole families lay dead.
One marker in Elmwood reminds us of one of the best-remembered heroines of the 1878 epidemic. It is inscribed, “Annie Cook. Born 1840. A Nineteenth Century Mary Magdalene who gave her life to save the lives of others.

Annie was the Madam of Mansion House on Gayoso Street, famous as “the wickedest spot between St. Louis and New Orleans.” In August, as soon as the fever invaded Memphis, she had closed down her establishment and turned its gilded and mirrored rooms into a hospital for the sick and dying. Nursing them, Annie Cook soon was herself struck down by the disease. She died on September 11, 1878.

Here are the names of others who died in September of that year while ministering to the victims of yellow fever:

Sister Constance
Sister Thecia
Sister Ruth
Sister M. Dolores Gloss
Sister Alphonse Yakel
Sister Vincentia
Sister Stanislaus
Sister Wilhelmina

The frosts came at last, in late October, and killed the mosquitoes. By then, an estimated 17,000 of the 20,000 Memphians who had remained in the city had contracted yellow fever. Of those, 5,150 were dead.

Here are names of some who died in October 1878:

Sister Frances
Sister Mary Laurentia Yakel
Sister Mary of St Joseph

A depopulated, bankrupt Memphis was in such dire straits that the city surrendered its charter to the state in January of 1879. But the ordeal was still not over. That summer another epidemic killed 595 of the city’s remaining citizens. And once more the women responded.

These are the names of some of the nursing women who died in 1879:

Sister M. Dominica Fitzpatrick
Sister M. Bernadine Dalton
Sister M. Joseph McGary

Tonight, as we honor the martyred dead, we also honor the dedication of those who survived. We can name only a few of these heroines. We know that Mattie Stephenson’s college classmate, Lula Wilkinson, recovered from the fever. And we know that among the religious women stricken with the disease, the following also survived to continue their good works:

Sister Hughetta Snowden
Sister Clare
Sister Helen

But what of the thousands of brave women whose names we shall never know? We especially wish to honor them. We do know, for instance, that a large proportion of the 3,000 women who served as nurses in the catastrophic 1878 outbreak of the fever were black women. We do not know their names. But it is fitting that we remember them as women of achievement, for we know that they, like all heroines and martyrs of the fevers — the named and the nameless, individually and together — demonstrate all the qualities our Women of Achievement awards recognize and value:

They were women who had the courage to choose the harder path.

Their initiative allowed them to function effectively amidst chaos and despair.

Their determination made them keep striving for solutions to overwhelming problems, and their vision allowed them to see a better future worth striving for.

Their steadfastness caused them to return again and again to a task that offered little beyond the satisfaction of meeting a great need.

And their heroism led them to risk everything, even life itself, for a worthy cause.

They have left us a heritage of unsurpassed valor. It is a heritage to cherish.

Frances Wright

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Frances Wright

Frances Wright was a wealthy 30-year-old Scotswoman when she came to the Tennessee wilderness in 1825 to make a reality of her dream: “To develop all the intellectual and physical powers of all human beings without regard to sex or condition, class, race, nation or color,” as she put it.

With the advice of land speculator Andrew Jackson, who later became president of the United States, Frances bought a 2000-acre tract on the Wolf River near the frontier settlement of Memphis. She named it Nashoba. There she worked alongside former slaves whose freedom she had bought, and a handful of white colonists who shared her utopian views.

They cleared land, planted crops, constructed log buildings. From the start however Nashoba was plagued by harsh realities of climate, economics, malarial fevers and the hostility of neighbors who denounced the community as a center of “free love” and “miscegenation.”

In 1830, when it was clear that the experiment had failed, Frances Wright arranged for the resettlement of Nashoba’s entire black population to black-ruled Haiti, which had just won its independence from France.

Until her death 22 years later, this woman who was ahead of her time vigorously advocated abolition of slavery, universal public education, religious freedom and total equality of the sexes. Frances Wright remains today one of the most widely acclaimed women who ever lived in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee.