Donna Fortson


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

Donna Fortson

In the early 1980s, downtown minister Jesse Garner saw Donna Fortson as a woman with the ideal characteristics to lead the First Presbyterian Church soup kitchen.

He recalls: “Something about Donna struck me as a person who had the savvy to run something, and also as a person who had a great deal of compassion.’’

Donna, a Sunday School teacher and municipal bond underwriter, hadn’t thought about volunteering in the soup kitchen, but she agreed to take the job leading the church’s outreach committee. “I thought it was somewhere that I could help,” she said.

About 25 men began to show up for meals every Sunday afternoon, and the regular group grew to about 100 by the late 1980s. With the growing numbers of people, Donna began to notice a heartbreaking change in the patrons.

“When women and children started coming to the soup kitchen, that upset me,” Donna said.

Some of the families were homeless. Others were struggling to make ends meet in nearby Lauderdale Courts. Some of the women had been abused. Donna did what she could through the soup kitchen. She and the volunteers set up special tables for children and served them milk and Spaghetti-o’s instead of the adult food. But there just wasn’t much she could do to help the families on a Sunday afternoon. Donna wanted to do more and began to envision a shelter for women and children — something that wasn’t available in Memphis then.

She started making connections, attending meetings and learning all that she could about ways to address the problems the women were facing. By 1992, her vision began to manifest, and Memphis Family Shelter was incorporated. Two years later, Donna left her investment banking career to make her vision a reality. The first shelter, which housed four families, opened in 1996 with Donna as the first executive director.

Even as the shelter opened in a Midtown foursquare, Donna and her board knew they needed a larger facility if they wanted to make a real difference. They began to plan for a larger shelter that would house four times as many families. The new $1.7 million shelter opened in December 2000, providing food, shelter and safety for 16 women and their children.

Families can stay in the shelter for up to two years; the average stay is between six and nine months. While there, they have access to counseling, budgeting help, and tutoring for their children and rental assistance programs to help the families make the move from the shelter to apartments.

More than 250 families had found temporary homes in the shelter in its first 10 years. As she begins the second decade, Donna is looking to the future. She is challenged by decreases in federal funding, but encouraged that there are now other agencies offering transitional housing for families.

“I think this is what I was supposed to do,” she said.

Rev. Garner calls the results “spectacular” and says his suggestion of Donna for the outreach committee exceeded his greatest expectations.

“I don’t remember the particular logic, though I would call it divine inspiration,” he said. “I have always described that as the single smartest thing I have ever done in my life.”

Women of Achievement agrees! Donna Fortson turned the suffering she saw in the soup line into inspiration for helping homeless women.

Donna’s vision of a home for women who have no home, of a safe place where mothers and children can heal and renew their lives, has come true.

Rebekah Jordan


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

Rebekah Jordan

In a community where city employees routinely worked two or three jobs to provide for their families, the idea of a living wage was a hard sell, to say the least.

Lucky for Memphis, the young woman who took on the job of selling it had the tenacity, fortitude and intelligence to sell, sell and sell again.

Rev. Rebekah Jordan, daughter of a Memphis minister and a Memphis school teacher, set out to train in college to teach, but found her way to an internship in social change — and the rest is now very important Memphis history.

Rebekah saw the powerful connection between ministry and social change. She went to seminary and sowed the seeds of what became the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice as she prepared for ordination. Working with union leader Fred Ashwill and Rev. Steve Shapard, they laid ground work to form a faith community focused on work related issues.

Beginning in November 2002, coalition members researched what a living wage in Memphis is and shaped the campaign and ordinance. In summer 2003, they began to meet with City Council members.

Through numerous setbacks, political shenanigans and even disputes among the campaign’s community supporters, Rebekah persevered. She drew and redrew strategy, rallying volunteers to go door to door with petitions, to come to rallies in bitter cold, to call council members and press them to appear at hearings and to vote for the living wage.

She was informed, insistent, unflagging, respectful, respected.

And successful.

The final aspects of a living wage ordinance passed in Memphis in November 2006 extending guarantee of $10 an hour with benefits or $12 an hour without to all full and part time city employees, employees of most city contractors and companies that are granted property tax exemptions.

In celebrations of the victory, Rebekah graciously credited the coalition of faith, labor and community groups and those individuals who steadfastly answered the call to rally or contact council members or otherwise answer.
But all who participated in the campaign know that the reason Memphis now has a living wage is because Rev. Rebekah Jordan was determined that Memphis workers have a living wage.

Rev. Andre Johnson of Gifts of Life Ministries captured Rebekah’s impact in these words at a worship celebration: “When all hope seemed lost, she continued to fire us up with her emails and phone calls, telling us where we needed to be and what we needed to do when we get there! …and with her leadership, we have assembled a nice diverse group of people from all over Memphis who have shown us support. From Christians to Jews and Muslims; from black and brown; from white and all around; from Germantown to Downtown; from Boxtown and Uptown; from rich and poor; from inner city and suburb, from gay and straight, from PhD to no D, from CEO’s to mopping floors.”

Rebekah Jordan is determined that low-wage workers be treated with respect and justice. Even as she leads the push to bring the living wage to county government employees, she is now also organizing a Memphis Workers Center where immigrant workers could learn about their workplace rights and organize to improve working conditions.

This 2007 Woman of Achievement has just gotten started!


Reverend Rebekah Jordan (Gienapp) is the writer of a blog called The Barefoot Mommy which gives parents advice on how to raise children free of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her blog has been featured in The Washington Post, The Lisa Show, and Brownicity.

Sheila White Parrish


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

Sheila White Parrish

Sheila White had a job few women have ever held. She worked for the railroad, the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. to be exact. In fact, she was the only forklift driver and the only woman in the railroad company’s track maintenance operation at the Tennessee Yard in Memphis when she was hired in 1997.

After she complained about being subjected to what she considered sexual
harassment, the railway investigated and gave a male employee a 10-day
suspension without pay and required him to take sensitivity training. But then a supervisor gave Sheila’s forklift job to a man, saying that other workers had
complained that employees with higher seniority were passed over for the job.

Sheila was transferred to track laborer work — pulling spikes from rail ties, laying track — heavy work. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the company had retaliated against her. After her new supervisor learned of her EEOC charge, he and Sheila had a disagreement with resulted in his reporting her as insubordinate. She was suspended without pay, then filed a grievance which resulted in a finding that she was not in fact insubordinate. The railroad reinstated her with full back pay for the days of work she had missed.

But Sheila sued the railroad, beginning a nine-year battle for justice. She alleged that the decision to take her forklift job away and her suspension without pay were retaliation of her sex discrimination complaint, in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law protects employees from discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color or national origin.

At a five-day trial in 2000, a jury found that Sheila did not prove sex discrimination but had been retaliated against. It awarded her $43,500 in compensatory damages and $54,285 in attorney fees. Both sides appealed.
In the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court, Judge Julia Gibbons requested that the entire bench hear Sheila’s case and later wrote for the majority that the change in job duties from forklift operator to track maintenance was an “adverse employment action” in part because it was “dirtier” and less prestigious, even though it paid the same.

“Taking away an employee’s paycheck for over a month is not trivial, and if
motivated by discriminatory intent, it violates” the law, Judge Gibbons wrote. BNSF appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the debate was over what kinds of actions by management could be defined as retaliation following an employee complaint. The high court ruling in late 2006 held that retaliation in violation of Title VII includes conduct that might dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.

Sheila’s case expanded the scope of what constitutes “unlawful retaliation.” That can now be based upon conduct causing harm outside the workplace, such as a scheduling change that might seem immaterial to many employees but that would, for example, “matter enormously to a young other with school-aged children.”

Today employers must scrutinize every management decision that affects an
employee who complains of discrimination. Federal law to protect workers has been changed and workers today and into the future will be better protected thanks to the heroic battle of Sheila White Vs. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe.

Sheila White Parrish travels and shares her story in workshops and among women’s groups.

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.

Gertrude McClellan Purdue

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Gertrude McClellan Purdue

Born in Ohio in 1909, Gertrude Purdue came into this world serving others. Through six wars, the great depression, and the Civil Rights movement, she’s been, in her own words, a handmaiden to the Lord. Her energy and dedication have benefited countless people. She’s the first to arrive for a meeting and the last to leave. She has a smile that lights up the room and a Salvation Army uniform that still fits.

The oldest of seven siblings, Gertrude was raised in Michigan and Indiana. The daughter of Salvation Army officers, she was serving doughnuts to servicemen and veterans by the time she was 9. At age 13, she was helping conduct summer camps for disadvantaged children. In a recent interview in The Commercial Appeal, she said, “We were children of the regiment, and I had a flock.”

She became a commissioned Salvation Army Officer in 1930. In 1934, she married fellow officer Bramwell Purdue. They had two daughters and a son and raised a foster daughter. Together the two served in five cities in the Southern Territory for almost 30 years.

The couple helped form one of the first USO clubs and went on to direct several others. In the 50s, W. B. Purdue served as divisional secretary while Gertrude worked with nursing homes and hospitals.

They came to Memphis in 1962 to serve as Area Commanders. During their years of active service they helped develop a shelter for abused and exploited women and children. Gertrude worked to develop social services including senior citizens programs and with the Junior League, established one of the city’s first daycares for low-income families. Working with the Memphis Parks Commission, she and her husband helped create Golden Age Clubs, recreational and learning clubs for senior citizens that were so popular that the parks service later developed their own.

In addition to her work with the Salvation Army, Gertrude has been a part of Church Women United since the group began, serving as both state and local president. When Myra Dreifus called asking for help on behalf of the Fund for Needy Children. Gertrude organized a “sew in,” with 250 women sewing 2,500 garments. The “sew in,” now known as a “sew out,” still exists. Following Dr. King’s assassination, she helped organize forums to bring people together to open lines of communication and foster understanding and unity. And she served on the committee that formulated plans for what is now the Memphis Inter-Faith Association.

Gertrude was a board member, officer and advocate for the YWCA when it was first addressed issues of race and women’s equality. This was during the time that the Y was one of the only integrated groups in town.

In 1973, the couple retired from the Salvation Army, but Gertrude kept on serving. A founding member of the Women’s Auxiliary, she’s still chief recruiter. She organized an early discount program for seniors, and played piano at the Adult Rehabilitation Center for 29 years. And she’s still delivers doughnuts at the VA Hospital twice each month.

Gertrude has received many awards but one tops the list. In 2006, she received the highest international honor the Salvation Army bestows: The Order of the Founder is given for superlative service to its mission and ministry. Her photo hangs at Army headquarters in Atlanta and is inscribed with her name and the words “servant” and “encourager.”

Gertrude has remained active in Church Women United and the East Memphis Quota Club and helps keep others motivated and on track. She’s optimistic and believes in setting an example of love. She has said, “….You never know what seed you sow today will grow down the line.”

This May, Gertrude will celebrate her 98th birthday. We know that over all these years, she has steadfastly sown many seeds and continues to do so today. She is certainly an encourager and an inspiration for us all.


Gertrude Purdue died at age 104 in May 2013.

Modeane Nichols Thompson

Women of Achievement

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

Modeane Nichols Thompson

In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most violent, severely segregated cities in the south. There were sit-ins at lunch counters and kneel-ins on church steps. Protesters who marched that spring were met with policemen and dogs. And yet that is where, due to work opportunities for beloved husband and father Harry, Modeane, and their five children found themselves living.

At that time Modeane’s main responsibility was caring for her family, no small task anytime. In those violent days, Harry Thompson had been pulled over and harassed by the police. The men in their neighborhood formed a group and assigned times to patrol during the night to keep their families safe.

One September Sunday morning Harry took the four older children to church while Modeane stayed home with the baby. Listening to the radio, Modeane heard that the Ku Klux Klan had bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. She knew her family was near that location and was panic stricken until they returned home safely. Others were not so fortunate; four little girls were killed in the bombing and by the end of the day 2 teenagers were dead.

After listening to the radio one day three-year-old Arnold said, “A Negro’s going to get you, Mommy.” Out of frustration Modeane wrote an article that was published in Redbook magazine in 1964. The article, titled “What Can We Tell Our Children?,” vividly describes the dual role of African American mothers during that time. Her goal was to create an atmosphere that encouraged the children to grow up to be confident American kids who believed they could be anything they wanted to be. Her challenge was to explain to them the painful reality of the institutional racism they would have to face.

There were two articles in that issue: Modeane’s, which had her by-line and showed a picture of her children at a birthday party, and one by a white mother, by-line anonymous and a blank rectangle for illustration.

The Thompson family returned home to Memphis at the beginning of the Sanitation Strike and Modeane intensified her efforts to work to effect community change. She immediately affiliated with causes that were dedicated to developing communication and understanding. She was an active member of the Rearing Children of Goodwill Workshop, Dialogue in Black and White and the Panel of American Women, a group that spoke publicly about their own biases and prejudices as a way to help others recognize prejudice in themselves. She was a founding member of the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Action Association, which helped stabilize the neighborhood during white flight.

Modeane began her 21 years with Family Services in 1971. Using the degree in Social Work she received from Lemoyne-Owen College, she counseled unwed teenagers, conducted family education groups, and worked with many special projects.

As a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Coalition of 100 Black Women, Shelby County Interfaith, Chair of the Action Audit for Change Committee of the YWCA of Greater Memphis and a lifetime member of the NAACP other organizations her advocacy has continued.

In 2006, Modeane was one of six national recipients of the first “Everyday Freedom Heroes Award” from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Modeane is modest about any recognition. She says she just does things she thinks everyone should do.


Modeane Nichols Thompson passed away on February 25, 2019.

Nancy Hale Lawhead

Women of Achievement

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

Nancy Hale Lawhead

Nancy Lawhead left her native Kentucky in the late 1960s determined to see some places and help some people.

In 1970, after a few years spent working in New York, Nancy found her way to Memphis. And lucky for us she did. She has used her University of Kentucky social work degree and eventually two master’s degrees to help our most vulnerable citizens.

Her decision to put service over self has, for the past 35 years, helped create a better future for thousands of men, women and children – from troubled, delinquent teenage girls in Brooklyn to homeless mentally ill people in Midtown Memphis, to neglected, abused and at-risk children, to the tiniest of newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit of the Med.

She says, “I wanted to be in a helping profession. I saw the plight of the mentally ill as a young social worker in the mid 70s, because of the stigma of mental illness. People, if they get cancer, can get treatment, but not if they are mentally ill, homeless, walking the streets hearing voices.”

She joined the United Way of Grater Memphis as a planning and research assistant for child welfare, juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy programs. Five years later, Nancy moved to the University of Tennessee Mental Health Center, in charge of program development and grant writing. In 1978 she was named executive director of the UT Mental Health Center. This was the era when mental patients were being “deinstitutionalized” and put out of facilities such as Western State Mental Hospital to fend for themselves.

Nancy passionately believed patients needed a community mental health center that would connect them to medications, housing, transportation, and whatever else they needed to have a normal life.

Dissatisfied with services being provided to poor Memphians, Nancy in 1980 located a school building on 2 ½ acres at the corner of Danny Thomas and Pontotoc, raised the needed money and founded Midtown Mental Health Center. Renovation of the old school alone cost $400,000.

She followed that feat with development of an on-site, 24/7 Crisis Stabilization Unit for people in serious psychiatric crisis.

For 7 years, working virtually around the clock, Nancy led the Center as executive director.

After a two-year break in the private sector, she returned to public service in 1990 as executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Community Health Agency. For five years, she worked to improve access to primary care for poor people.

In 1995, Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris tapped Nancy to become special advisor to the mayor for health policy at national, state and local levels. She worked on release plans for Shelby County Jail inmates who were mentally ill or had substance abuse problems while grappling with what she saw as the criminalization of the mentally ill by managed care health systems.

In 1998, Nancy brokered the joint venture between the Memphis Shelby County Health Department and The Med. The agreement linked their clinics into a primary care network called the Health Loop, a $15 million operation and the largest primary care provider in Shelby County.

Now serving her third mayor, Mayor A C Wharton, Nancy earlier this year moved into the Urban Child Institute where she will head the county’s efforts to address early childhood and infant mortality issues. She will advocate for more funding and new policies and coordinate local efforts to stop the high rate of infant deaths.

Nancy Lawhead’s passion for helping the helpless led her to a career of service that has made thousands of lives healthier and happier and has made Memphis a better place to live.