Charl Ormond Williams

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Charl Ormond Williams

Educator. Political force. Suffragist. Charl Ormond Williams juggled all these roles in an era that rarely saw a woman work outside the home.

Appointed superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 1914, Charl, only 30 years old, redefined educational administration in the six years she served in this capacity. Through her leadership and vision, the county school budget was doubled with more than a quarter of a million dollars allocated to new construction and equipment.

Charl’s world travels began after her 1921 election as the first Southern woman president of the National Education Association. That next year, as the newly elected field secretary for the NEA, she logged an average of 40,000 miles a year throughout the United States. For three decades following her involvement with the NEA, she helped strengthen the organization and lobbied for a federal Department of Education and federal aid to education and campaigned to end discrimination against married women as teachers. She took her crusades abroad to Japan, India and Pakistan in 1953 to organize teaching groups, and visited Russia two years later to study educational methods.

Politically adept, she also became a “first” in the political arena, the first woman from the Volunteer State to become a member of the Democratic National Committee. She was also elected vice chairman in June 1920, the first woman to hold such a high post. In Nashville that August, she was the leader of the combined suffrage forces as overall chairman of the ratification efforts pushing to make Tennessee the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th amendment. She stood by Gov. A.H. Roberts’ side as he signed Tennessee’s ratification papers of the so-called Susan B. Anthony amendment making votes for women the law of the land.

In 1935, Charl was elected president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. She also served a term as national vice president of the Parent Teachers Association, and in 1955, she was elected vice president of Phi Beta Kappa.

So respected as a leader and strategic planner, Charl was named one of the 12 American women competent to hold the presidency of the United States by the president of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.

Charl Ormond Williams’ legacy is an enduring one, having affected education for our children, state and federal laws, and the business community three decades after her death.

Elizabeth Toles

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Elizabeth Toles

One of the quiet heroines in Memphis is Elizabeth Toles, a former schoolteacher who has been steadfast in her support for others for all of her 79 years. During her 32 years in the classroom, before retiring in 1975, she was highly regarded for her kindness, her emphasis on excellence, and her active community service.

Elizabeth was born blind and left motherless at three weeks of age when her mother died. Her sight in one eye returned at age nine and she has proceeded to spend a lifetime teaching others how to overcome obstacles. Elizabeth has received numerous awards, citations, and recognition from all walks of life. In 1969, during the days of heightened racial tensions, she donated half a commercial building at 1277 Mississippi for the Memphis Police Department to use as a community service center – because she saw the need.

She currently pastors the Church of Good Fellowship, which she began in 1985. She strongly advocates tithing so much that she gives 10 percent of her church’s monthly income to help college students. Her church donates another one percent of its monthly revenue to MIFA to help feed the hungry. She teaches Bible study at King’s Daughters and Sons Home and sponsors a Thanksgiving dinner there annually.

The praise for Elizabeth’s good works is voluminous. She has been written about in national publications and received recognition from mayors, governors and the U.S. Congress.

She has helped send young people to college, provided stability for children whose families were in crisis, and given money anonymously to help many people – young and old – with their dreams. At her church’s Pastor Appreciation Day, one young woman said, “When I was a little girl, I thought Elizabeth Toles was a millionaire. She helped everybody!”

Her life has been an example of steadfastness – devotion to God and devotion to helping others.

Donna Sue Shannon

Women of Achievement

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

Donna Sue Shannon

Donna Sue Shannon grew up in a neighborhood off Third Street and began a lifelong association with the YWCA as a Y Teen at Lauderdale School. Always a strong speaker, one year she outsold all but one child in the national Y Teens’ annual potato chip fundraiser. Excellent grades and leadership won her a scholarship to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville where she became president of the college YWCA chapter.

A year short of graduation, she married, became a “Marine wife” with two children and began work as a realtor in Cherry Point, N.C.

Back in Memphis, as a single mother fully responsible for her family, she earned two degrees from the communications department of Memphis State University. Donna Sue began a teaching affiliation with the university that continued for a quarter of a century.

Donna Sue learned of the Rearing Children of Goodwill program organized by the National Council of Christians and Jews. It was 1968. Church women, black and white, read and studied and talked together. In the midst of the program, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis. “I was in the place God wanted me to be,” Donna Sue says, “in a learning, studying environment with black and white women. It was my life and it was my world.”

She joined the Panel of American Women to work for improved race relations by fostering personal relationships and social interactions between black and white women. She spoke for the panel throughout the city. Donna Sue and her children endured harassment and intimidation from their neighbors, but her commitment to inclusivity and diversity blossomed and grew.

Donna Sue was able to put that commitment most concretely to work as the first director of training and development for Memphis Light Gas & Water in 1979. Hired when the utility was under a court order to change personnel practices, Donna Sue was directed to “centralize, standardize and formalize all training for all employees.” Translation: She had to change everything.

In a little more than five years, she built a training department and created workshops and intensive programs that would identify and nurture potential supervisors and managers among women and minority employees. Translation: She caught a lot of heat.

But the MLGW work continues to be her proudest career achievement. “I believe what was needed was someone who had the vision and the impetus to remedy some past problems … I believed that we needed civil rights and affirmative action.”

Her vision led her into active work with Church Women United, Network and the board of the Transition House for Women. As YWCA president in 1991, she instituted a strategic planning process that focused the agency on the mission – and vision – that Donna Sue believes and lives: to empower women and their families.

Donna Sue Shannon passed away on July 8, 2022.

Molly Meisenheimer

Women of Achievement

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

Molly Meisenheimer

In 1990, Molly Meisenheimer was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35, too young at the time for a routine mammogram. With the support of her husband and two sons, she underwent a mastectomy, extensive chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery. Faith in her family and church helped her survive the experience. “It’s not a death sentence,” Molly insists. “I’m here, I have hair on my head and a smile on my face.”

But Molly realized that women she knew didn’t talk about breast cancer, and she was desperate to find a way to reach out to other women and share her feelings. She came across an article on the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Foundation, which raises money to fund treatment for breast-cancer patients. The group began the Race for the Cure 5K walk or run with women participants only, followed by a one-mile family fun run. Molly decided to help bring this fundraiser to Memphis, thus assisting women who didn’t have access to doctors and hospitals. In 1993, the event took place in 18 cities, including Memphis, with 1,753 participating, and net profits of $35,000. In 1999, in Memphis, 12,640 participated and $462,900 was raised.

The race is now held in more than 100 cities. Seventy-five percent of the funds raised locally stay in Memphis to pay for diagnostic screening, surgery, wigs and prostheses, videos, books, and support groups. The Race for the Cure office, run by volunteers and one paid staff member, has a sign prominently displayed reading, “Leave your ego at home.”

“I wish I hadn’t had breast cancer, but I really like the person I’ve become,” says Molly. Along with organizing the annual Race for the Cure, Molly addresses women in factories and jails, urging them to do regular self-examinations and to get mammograms.

“We are all women, we all have breasts, and cancer has no barriers.”

This May will mark the fifth year of a Memphis pro/amateur golf event that men can enter. Donations to the race and to the Komen Foundation come in throughout the year. A luncheon held locally once a year to honor all breast-cancer survivors will have 500-600 attendees. They come by word of mouth and are recognized by the number of years they have survived the cancer.

Molly has become a heroine to her family, to the Memphis community, and to breast-cancer patients and survivors everywhere for turning her personal tragedy into hope for hundreds of other women.

Molly Meisenheimer won the Memphis Chapter of the Public Relations Society of Americas (PRSA) Communicator of the Year award. She has relocated to Oxford, Mississippi.

Helen Adamo

Women of Achievement

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

Helen Adamo

Although some form of mental illness affects one in five families, the condition is often misunderstood, feared, and hidden from public view. It takes a person of courage to accept the unpopular challenge of being a champion for people who suffer with mental illness. Such a courageous person is Helen Adamo.

For 20 years, Helen has worked to dispel erroneous myths, change public policy, and defend the rights of individuals whose lives have been affected by disorders of the brain. Her business card from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Memphis reads, “Helen Adamo, Advocate.” Behind this simple title lies a diverse, complex combination of hard-fought achievements, gratifying victories, frustrating delays, fierce battles, exhausting hours, and eternal faith. Helen’s goals include removing the stigma attached to mental illness and improving the quality of life for those who often are victimized because of their illness.

“Discovering that a family member has a mental illness is like a death, but the person is still living,” Helen said. “You don’t receive flowers. People don’t come to visit and console you. But you still grieve. And you have to go through each step of the grieving process until you reach acceptance. That’s when you become an advocate.”

Helen has far more than a passing acquaintance with those steps to acceptance. She is the mother of a mentally ill adult son. Twenty-eight years ago when she first faced the heartbreak of mental illness, there were few medications and even fewer services available for families with mentally ill members.

Today, she enthusiastically lists the number of medications available, but laments the delivery of services and the ignorance that persists about the disease. She edits the AMI Advisor, a newsletter for the organization she has served since 1983.

By speaking out in defense of the rights of the mentally ill, Helen draws attention to the plight of these intelligent individuals who suffer and may not know that there is help for them. She is one of the cofounders of the Crisis Intervention Team, specially trained police officers equipped to handle people with brain disorders. This special unit has been in existence for 11 years and has become a model for the rest of the country. The officers volunteer for the training and are now found in every precinct in Memphis 24 hours a day.

Jails are another challenge faced by the mentally ill and a major concern for Helen. She firmly believes that if a third of detainees in jails who are suffering with serious brain disorders were expedited through the system so they could get the help they need, overcrowding in jails would be a moot point. This is neither a popular nor easy proposal, but one she pursues nevertheless. After two years of Helen’s advocacy for those mired in the judicial system, a committee has been formed to review solutions to the problems – a glimmer of hope on the horizon for her.

Helen retired from NAMI-Memphis April 1, 2002, at age 74.

Helen Adamo passed away on September 22, 2021.

Bernice Donald

Women of Achievement

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

Bernice Donald

Determination is personified in Judge Bernice Bouie Donald.

When Bernice transferred from an all-black school to Olive Branch High School in her junior year, she was the only African-American honor student invited to attend a field trip to New York. The sixth of 10 children, she knew the expense of the trip would be a hardship for her family. But her mother, Willie Bouie, assured Bernice she’d find the $200. Although Willie was a domestic worker at the time and her husband was a sharecropper, they somehow scraped together the money, and young Bernice went to New York. Today, she travels the world, but credits her mother’s determination to see her children reach their full potential as the inspiration for her own determined success.

“She’s just an incredible person,” Bernice says of her mother. “She always forced me to go beyond my comfort zone, and her persistence has paid off. Now, instead of just going to New York, I’m going halfway around the world. I really attribute it directly to her.”

The destination “halfway around the world” is Russia, where for the past three years Bernice has taught Russian women about women’s rights, the women’s movement in the U.S., and antidiscrimination laws. This year, she will do the same for women in Turkey as an advisory member on the board of the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative. Although she remains very active in local and national causes, she’s enthusiastic about her work in emerging democracies.

In 1982, Bernice became Judge Bernice Donald for the first time when she was elected to the Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court bench, the first African-American woman to be elected judge in Tennessee. In 1988, she became the first African-American woman in the nation to be appointed as a U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge. Finally, in January 1996, she received a lifetime appointment as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Tennessee – another first in the state.

Bernice didn’t grow up planning to become a judge, or even an attorney. As a young girl, she would gather her dolls and those of her sisters and line them up against the bedroom wall. She would “teach” the assembled “students” by reading to them from the encyclopedia. As she grew older she aspired to become a teacher. Again, it was her mother who intervened. Willie insisted that young Bernice go to college, but told her she should reconsider her plans to become a teacher. Still, Bernice has been teaching in one fashion or another since 1980 as an adjunct professor at the former Shelby State Community College, the University of Memphis and the National Judicial College.


On December 1, 2010, Bernice Donald was nominated by President Barack Obama for a judgeship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. She received her commission on September 8, 2011 and continues to serve as a judge on the court.

Rachel Shankman

Women of Achievement

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

Rachel Shankman

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Rachel Fromer Shankman was born in a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany, in 1946. The family came to the United States and settled in Nashville, where Rachel was raised. Like many Holocaust survivors, her parents didn’t talk much about their experience. But in 1960, they were interviewed by a Nashville reporter, and Rachel began asking questions. She was told stories of beatings, hunger, deprivation and death. She was told stories of small acts of courage and love that helped people in an untenable situation survive one more day. Afterward, she no longer took life for granted.

In the late 1980s, she and her husband saw a short documentary about a Canadian high school teacher who had been challenging the reality of the Holocaust in his classroom. Rachel was incredulous and outraged. Knowing that survivors and witnesses will not always be alive to tell their stories and aware that young people might have to choose between conflicting versions of history, Rachel started to look for solutions.

In 1976, former Memphian Margo Stern Strom cofounded Facing History and Ourselves. The program was designed to teach students critical thinking skills. Using the Holocaust and the events of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s as a case study, students learned that history is a result of a series of small decisions, many of them made by individuals.

In 1987, Facing History and Ourselves began a pilot program in six Memphis City Schools and Rachel volunteered. Rachel had previously served as the regional director for B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and director of Memphis State University’s Jewish Student Union. When Facing History and Ourselves opened a Memphis office in 1992, Rachel’s many years of experience in working with youth and her passion for the organization made her an obvious choice for executive director.

Under Rachel’s leadership, Facing History and Ourselves has worked with more than 300 educators in the Memphis area. Teachers learn an interactive process that includes readings, videos, group discussions and exercises. They then return to their schools and use the program in the way that is most effective for their setting. As a result, more than 30,000 students have learned that history is about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

Under Rachel’s direction, Facing History and Ourselves has moved into the larger community. In 1996, the office initiated a coalition called Cultures United. The group developed Memphis Building Community, a guide for schools and area clergy to use to discuss the history of Memphis. This guide became a model for other cities, including Chicago and New York. Always interested in coalitions and alliances, Rachel’s most recent project involves training young attorneys to go into the classroom to discuss issues surrounding law, morality and hate crimes.