Lorrine Cunningham


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

Lorrine Cunningham

Lorrine Cunningham has given outstanding and vital leadership in seeking economic and social justice for everyone, whether the issue is wife abuse, job discrimination, or jail and prison conditions.

She joined the Civil Rights movement in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, where she and her Methodist minister husband were involved in the struggle to open churches to persons of all races. That was, she has said, “a traumatic and radicalizing experience.”

Since her arrival in Memphis in 1970, Lorrine has demonstrated that constant vigilance and a strong will can solve glaring human needs. When this self-described “little old lady in tennis shoes” talks, people listen — and they act.

As a lead of Church Women United, Lorrine was instrumental in development of the Transitional Center for Women, a residential program for women offenders, and in creation of the Second Chance Fund to help those women afford education and job training. As a founder and past president of the Economic Justice for Women Coalition, she generated projects to heighten public awareness of economic and equality issues facing all women. In recent years, she has pursued Shelby County officials demanding equal treatment and opportunities for women prisoners in the county jail.

Lorrine Cunningham’s achievements to better women’s lives are the result of her vision of a world where women can do and be everything they imagine.

Verla Petit

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Verla Petit

Verla Petit has devoted her life to service to the downtrodden, the forgotten and the rejected at Memphis Union Mission. She has given 35 years — first, as executive secretary, and since 1976 as director — to provide food, shelter and rehabilitation for men and women she calls “down-and-outers.”

Recently the mission has tended to whole families left homeless by rocky economic times.

Nearly from the day in 1951 when she entered the mission as bookkeeper and secretary to its founder Jimmy Stroud, she was involved in decision-making and administration for the mission’s programs. She is the founder and director of the Memphis Christian Servicemen’s Center and the 80-acre Victory Valley Bible Conference Grounds, both operated by the mission. She is a frequent speaker at Bible conferences and outreach programs.

Verla has worked in steadfast devotion to her God, firm in her belief that needs of the down-and-outers remain unchanged. She has said, “We take those that the police bring us, or the hospitals call about. We take those that left home, got on a bender and have drunk up every cent they have. We take them out of the bus station.”

Even before her involvement with the Union Mission, Verla taught Bible classes at the Strand Theatre, started a Tuesday night Bible class at Second and Madison, and made Sunday visits to Mud Island squatter homes. As one nominator said of Verla Petit, “If she was a woman in industry, she’d be running the company!”

Verla retired in July 1991 and travels frequently as a spiritual and inspirational speaker.

Eunice Carruthers

Women of Achievement

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

Eunice Carruthers

As one of the 12 children in her family in Arlington, Tennessee, Eunice Carruthers made hats for dolls and decorated her own head with bows, flowers and ribbons. She carried that childhood interest into her adult life and began her career as hat maker when she made her own first hat to wear to church. Friends were so impressed that soon she was receiving calls for the handmade hats, and Unis Originals came into begin.

From working nights and weekends at home, she went on to enter a partnership — Carsala’s Boutique — and then went into business on her own with Unis of Memphis in 1965. Business was so good that Unis expanded to a new location in 1970.

But hats were not the only business of Eunice Carruthers. In 1955 she graduated from LeMoyne College and began a demanding, distinguished career in the education of handicapped children — including teaching, instructor evaluation and vocational placement.

Eunice retired from her teaching career, but still continues with her first love, the making of hats. Her life exemplifies her belief that “no black woman who has ever dared to dream great dreams, and who was willing to pay the price, will fail to realize that dream.”

Eunice is chairperson of the National Organ Transplant Fund and still sells designer hats but no longer creates them.

Eunice passed away on July 17, 2019.

Nina Katz


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

Nina Katz

Nina Katz is a survivor of the Holocaust and as such has spent her life working with special insight to combat racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. She shares her experiences during World War II with students across Memphis and Shelby County in the hopes that such tragic events will never again occur.

Nina has devoted 12 years striving to end illiteracy and the poverty that plagues non-reading adults. Her work is respected and honored nationally for her creative service to the cause of literacy.

In her own eloquent words, “As an eye witness to the European catastrophe, I came to realize at a very young age the importance of human survival. My love for humanity has been expressed through a strong feeling of commitment and deep dedication to my work in this community.”

Nina served as first female board chairperson for the Memphis Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. As a leader in Jewish women’s organizations, Jewish educational and cultural institutions, her skills in developing programs to enhance brotherhood and sisterhood among people of all races and faiths have been exemplary.

Nina Katz is a singular woman of valor and heroism.

Nina Katz had a hand in founding the Memphis Literacy Council, saving Facing History and Ourselves, and Diversity Memphis. She started an interracial, interfaith women’s discussion group called Coffee and Dialogue. Nina Katz passed away on February 8, 2014 at age 89.

In 2016 Nina Katz was chosen to be one of several prominent Memphians in the public artwork, Upstanders Mural, that is near the corner of Main Street and Huling Avenue.

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.

Joan Turner Beifuss

Women of Achievement

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

Joan Turner Beifuss

By the first week of the sanitation strike in 1968, Joan Beifuss had instituted Rearing Children of Goodwill, a desegregation workshop similar to one she had been involved in a few years before in Chicago. Several weeks later, the former Sun-Times reporter marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and covered the strike for the National Catholic Reporter.

Shortly after Dr. King was assassinated, Joan joined an ad-hoc committee formed to understand the meaning of the events they had witnessed. In 1972 she began approaching publishing houses with a book based on the articles and interviews collected by the group. New York houses rejected it because it wasn’t “commercial.” While teaching at Memphis State University, she submitted it to the regional and university presses. They rejected the manuscript.

In 1985, at her own expense, she published At The River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike and Martin Luther King. Readers can’t put the book down so caught are they in the inexorable rush of events and the conflicts that create social change.

It was Joan’s determination that this story would not be lost that carried her through 17 years of working on the manuscript.

Joan later received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Award from Memphis State University in 1987, the T.O. Jones Award and others. At The River I Stand became part of an 18-volume series, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in 1989. In 1990 St. Luke’s Press published a hardbound version. Joan died of lung cancer January 7, 1994. She was 63.

Maxine Smith


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

Maxine Smith

Memphian Maxine Smith first challenged racial bigotry when she was eight years old and kept asking for “Mister” Joseph Atkins when visiting her father at the Veterans Administration hospital, despite the clerk’s rebuke, “We don’t refer to niggers as Mister.”

Since 1957 when she was denied admission to Memphis State University graduate school despite her Master’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont, Maxine Smith has been, in the words of former Memphis Police Director Buddy Chapman, “the conscience we should have had.”

One of the first female members of the Memphis NAACP board, Maxine was appointed executive secretary in 1962. She coordinated boycotts, which forced downtown merchants to desegregate, and sit-ins that opened public facilities — libraries, restrooms, parks, drinking fountains — to African Americans.

The instigator of “Black Mondays” in 1969 when 67,000 black students stayed home from school, Maxine has been referred to as the most powerful woman in Memphis. Along the way, she has been jailed, threatened, maligned, despised. She often has cried herself to sleep and her health has suffered from the demands of the life work she chose.

Admittedly strong-willed and stubborn, Maxine Smith says she will not stop until there is perfect racial equality. “I believe in what I am doing,” this courageous woman says.


Maxine Smith served as the Executive Secretary of the NAACP Branch of Memphis, held a position on the Memphis Board of Education, was elected president of the Memphis Board of Education in 1991, and continued in those roles until her retirement in 1995. Smith was presented with the Freedom Award by the National Civil Rights Museum in 2003, and Maxine Smith STEAM Academy was named in her honor.

She passed away April 26, 2013.