for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:
Margery Rumbarger McSweeney
Despite active opposition, Margery Rumbarger fought for the cause of women to have the right to give birth to their children in their own homes, with the assistance of midwives.
Ninety percent of all births worldwide occur in the home. Currently, the majority of births in this country take place in hospitals. Yet in recent years a growing number of women have decided to give birth at home. Reasons for this include the wish for more participation in the process and more control of the decisions surrounding birth.
While home birth is not for all women, the birth process is a natural part of the life cycle. Margery believes that for women at low risk, home birth should remain an alternative. It is her strong belief in this philosophy that led Margery and a friend to found the Homebirth Midwifery Service in 1980. Since that time she has assisted more than 200 babies into the world.
But home birth remains controversial in our high-tech society. In March 1984, as a result of her lay midwifery practice, Margery was fired from her position as a pre-natal health care educator for the Shelby County Health Department. After the Civil Service Merit Board ruled the firing was improper, she was reinstated and offered a transfer to the Tuberculosis Clinic, which according to state guidelines is a “high health risk.” She refused the transfer and was offered another to the Immunization Clinic. She refused that as well.
Three years later she still is involved in a lawsuit against the Health Department. Margery believes that the turmoil is a result of “strong prejudice in the medical community” against law midwives. Yet Margery Rumbarger, an R.N. with the highest level of obstetrics training available, continues to courageously practice lay midwifery in order to provide women with an alternative in which she deeply believes.
Margery’s lawsuit against the Shelby County Health Department was settled in federal court in 1988. The Department wrote Margery a formal letter of apology and paid her a financial settlement for her time off work. She chose not to return to the Heath Department, and works part time as a supervising nurse with a home health agency while continuing her midwifery. She had assisted about 370 deliveries as of February 1994.
for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite
widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:
Willie Pearl Butler
When she moved to Memphis as a young woman, Willie Pearl Butler worked hard to support herself and her family. She was employed successively by the Chisca Hotel, Loeb’s Laundry, the Old White Rose Laundry, Memphis Steam Cleaners and Kay’s Nursing Home. But in 1968 her young son was in a serious accident and required her constant attention. It was then that she was forced to seek help from the Welfare Department.
An assertive woman, she was well treated but she was shocked at the poor treatment of others that she witnessed. Willie Pearl Butler decided that something must be done. She questioned the welfare workers, researched the laws, and then made an appointment with the director of the Welfare Department. She and nine other women organized the local chapter of the Welfare Rights Organization. She went to a first meeting alone to state their grievances concerning the attitude of some social workers toward poor women.
While continuing her work on welfare rights, she helped organize the Resident Council Association of Public Housing and the LeMoyne Gardens Tenants Association. She also got involved in establishing Memphis Area Legal Services and became the first non-lawyer to chair that board. As time passed and her reputation grew, she found herself more often involved in meetings than in confrontations and demonstrations.
Through the years, when the rights of the poor in our community have been violated, Willie Pearl was on the front lines to see that justice was done.
With unfailing determination, she has struggled to achieve for poor people the respect that all people deserve.
Willie Pearl later worked for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department.
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.”
for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:
While others of her generation busied themselves with lady-like traditions of the South to which they were born, Frances Edgar Coe stepped into the public arena in the 1940s as president of the Planned Parenthood Association and vice president of the League of Women Voters. In 1948 she moved into elective politics and worked in Estes Kefauver’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.
In 1955 this Vassar graduate and former teacher was one of 16 candidates in the first election for the Memphis City School Board after political control of it ended. She won a seat and found her lifelong niche.
She served on the Memphis Board of Education for 24 years.
Through segregation, dismantling of a dual school system, integration, the draining of support into a private segregated system and the beginning of a resurgence of support for the public system, she always fought not only for equal education but for superior education for all children. She was president in 1972 when the board reorganized from five to nine members and instituted court-ordered busing.
We honor Frances for her refusal to be shaken from her vision of fairness, for the stubbornness that sustained her through the years of meetings and long arguments when the notion of a fine education could have been lost in the divisive atmosphere of prejudice and discrimination.
For her heroic efforts to cause change toward a better future for our children, we salute Frances Coe.
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:
Dorothy Gunther Pugh
In 1977 young dancers in Shelby County had almost no opportunities to perform. Luckily for them, a broadly trained dancer and highly talented instructor named Dorothy Gunther Pugh noticed.
She envisioned a professional ballet group created principally for young dancers whom she would instruct. She founded Memphis Youth Concert Ballet and gave the company’s first performance before a small audience at Hutchison School. From that first budget of about $4,700, Youth Concert Ballet has grown to an operation of $85,000 a year that performs original choreography regularly at The Orpheum. The company has performed at the Memphis in May International Sunset Symphony and on national television. Thousands of public and private school children are enriched by the young dancers’ performances.
To reach beyond ballet’s elitist image, Dorothy created a scholarship fund for minority dancers. Last year the company was judged to be an “intern company” by the prestigious Southeast Regional Ballet Association.
As she celebrates its 10th anniversary, Dorothy’s is the largest ballet company in town. The company’s new name — Memphis Concert Ballet — relinquishes the word “youth” and reflects her readiness to extend her work beyond the high school years.
Dorothy Pugh epitomizes the woman of initiative who seized the opportunity to use her talents and create her own future, and in so doing has provided creative stimulus, artistic quality and enrichment, not only for her dancers but also for the arts community of Memphis.
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:
When Susie Bryant was a young girl in Greenwood, Mississippi she accompanied her mother on expeditions to bring soup and comfort to the sick.
She was raised in a home in which education was seen as essential and both parents worked to ensure that children knew their lessons before arriving at school each day. Susie left Mississippi and arrived in Orange Mound on January 12, 1936, with one child of her own, two of her sister’s and a trunk of her belongings. She immediately began what was to be a lifetime of community involvement.
In her early days she felt a special commitment to young children. She was director of her church’s youth department, organized the Dunbar Elementary PTA and later kept the children of working mothers in her home. She organized voting sites in precincts all over the city, and has directed “schools” to teach new voters how to go through the voting process.
While her activities have taken her all over the city, she is especially noted as an advocate for the citizens of Orange Mound. She was vital in the establishment of the Orange Mound Settlement House and has served a long term as president. People in the community know to come to Susie for help in meeting their needs.
Whether those needs have been for food, shelter, clothing or love, Susie has found a source. As she herself grew older, she became aware of the treatment (or mistreatment) of older persons in our society and added senior citizens to her list of those to help. Her organizing skills are immense; she has managed to help many individuals by recruiting others to join her efforts.
Susie Bryant believes that God will bless you for what you do for others. Because of her steadfast efforts for those in need, her life is filled with blessings.
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:
Since 1969 Astrid Braganza has worked with women imprisoned in the Shelby County Jail. Her vision has been, and still is, more humane treatment for these women and an opportunity for them to rehabilitate themselves.
Her volunteer work is done inside the jail by personal contact and by providing opportunities for worship and personal enrichment. It is tiring and demanding but she has never given up on the imprisoned women who need help.
Astrid, a native of India, was already there when Church Women United in the early 1970s documented two appalling problems that were being ignored by the local justice system. Astrid later described them: those dragging, empty hours in which women had nothing to do but stare at the bars and walls of their cells, play poker and dice, or for the more energetic, start squabbles that often degenerated into brawls.
A second problem she identified was ironic in the region that prides itself on being with the so-called Bible Belt: the women were denied their basic human right to worship God in any formal way.
From worship services held in a wide hallway on the fifth floor of the old county jail, to the disappointment of seeing women barred from a beautiful inmates’ chapel at the Penal Farm, and finally to services in a stark, simple chapel in the Criminal Justice Center, Astrid Braganza has held true to her vision. Many times she met with resistance and resentment from jail officials. She never let them stop her, however.
In our society, women behind bars are nearly invisible. Astrid Braganza has demonstrated through her vision and work with the criminal justice system that a better life for these women is possible.