Bettye Boone


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

Bettye Boone

Bettye Boone is a woman’s woman.

She believes in the power – and responsibility – of women to make a difference in politics.

She believes in education and its power to equip women and girls for full participation in our nation.

She believes that women and girls can learn crucial lessons of financial literacy and can be empowered to make good decisions and plans for themselves and their families.

Bettye Boone believes in women and tonight we honor her vision of unity, activism and change.

Bettye was born in a small town near Atlanta, Georgia, and earned a B.A. in sociology and psychology at Morris Brown College. She worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources and then in 1986 began a 20-year career with the Internal Revenue Service.

Her IRS duties moved her to Memphis in 1995 and she quickly found her way to Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church where she became a leader and met other leading women.

In October 2004, she joined the Memphis chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women whose mission is to advocate on behalf of African-American women in leadership development and for equity in health, education and economic development. Bettye says, “I was looking for an organization that I could do some community service work to help others succeed. The rest is history.”

Bettye retired from the IRS in 2006. She became part-time stewardship director for her church but shifted tremendous energy to the Coalition and projects to empower women. In 2008, she was elected president of the Memphis chapter and held that role through 2012. Among initiatives she led are:
• Young Women of Excellence conferences that brought an average of 200 girls and their parents to workshops on self-esteem building, career planning, decision-making, leadership, finance and communication skills.
• HIV/AIDS awareness and testing events that drew more than 1,000 persons, mostly women, for testing and education
• The 2012 Sisters’ Keeper Financial Literacy Program – a six-week session that equipped 12 women to better manage their households
• Women Vote Early campaign of signs, rallies and publicity to spur women to vote in the most recent national election. Bettye personally solicited organizations across racial, cultural and partisan lines to collaborate in the campaign – from various sorority chapters, the Memphis Area Women’s Council, the Shelby County Democratic Women and others.
• Pancakes and Politics political forum in fall 2014 for candidates in the crowded local election.

The chapter earned the 2009 Chapter of the Year award for its educational programming. Bettye was honored in 2011 with the Tri-State Defender’s 50 Women of Excellence award and in 2013 by Mayor AC Wharton and Mrs. Ruby Wharton with the woman’s rights award.

Bettye is using her voice – speaking out in pursuit of her vision of equity and security for women.

Last fall, she joined her voice with Healthy and Free Tennessee and produced a YouTube video encouraging women to Vote No on Amendment One. And very recently, she stepped up to join our community’s effort to unite women leaders in support of a violence prevention campaign – Memphis Says NO MORE – combatting rape and domestic violence. She spoke openly about her own experience with violence, urging action and energy to change attitudes and to stop rape and battering.

Bettye was elected this year to another term as president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., Memphis Chapter.

She believes in helping people succeed. She has launched Boone Consulting and Support Services to deliver financial literacy and coaching to individuals and groups, grant writing, leadership development and presentation skills.

Living a life grounded in her Christian faith and secured by a family she loves dearly and who love her – Bettye Boone strives to unite and empower women toward a shared vision of strength, success and justice.

Owen Phillips


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

Dr. Owen Phillips

Since the 1980s, those who strive to assure American women access to complete reproductive health care, including termination of pregnancy, have been threatened with bombings, kidnappings, shootings and arson.

Doctors have been shot to death, even in their churches; nurses and other clinic staff have been killed or have lost eyes and limbs. Clinics have closed due to terrorism and those few that remain open strive constantly to protect personnel from danger.

In Tennessee last year, a proposal called Amendment One set out to change the state constitution’s protection of privacy rights that would grant state legislators the ability to pass unlimited restrictions on abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or saving the life of the mother.

Women concerned about the potential loss of healthcare and the likelihood that politicians could acquire control over women’s health care decisions organized across Tennessee to fight Amendment One. The Vote No on One campaign needed the voices of strong women – physicians, lawyers and healthcare consumers – to speak in commercials to educate voters about the potential impact of the amendment.

When the question was asked in Memphis – what doctor will appear in commercials to oppose Amendment One – Owen Phillips did not hesitate. This obstetrician-gynecologist, a specialist in high risk pregnancy and genetics, researcher and educator of student doctors raised her hand and signed on to be a face and a voice in support of women’s rights to control their own destiny.

In Owen’s commercial, which aired across the state, she told the compelling story of a patient diagnosed with cancer who chose to continue a pregnancy rather than treat her disease. She died – but she had charge of her decision. Owen said, “It was her decision and no one else’s.”

This heroic gesture was only the latest in Owen’s consistent support of women’s right to full reproductive care. She wrote an op-ed for the newspapers about the “dangerous and troubling” amendment. She wrote:
“I have had patients whose doctors advised them that because of their medical conditions, continuing a pregnancy would jeopardize their lives and leave their children motherless.
“I have had patients whose pregnancies resulted from failed contraception, even methods that were supposed to have been permanent.
“I have cared for 12-year-olds who have been raped by family members.”

Owen continued: “I am not in a position to make decisions for any of these women and their families, but neither is a politician or community member who has never faced such a terrible situation.”

Owen grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where she earned her undergraduate and medical degrees. Even in high school she worked at a free clinic in Jackson, driving a home health nurse into the poorer neighborhoods to check on elderly residents.

Many years later, Owen joined Big Brothers Big Sisters where her relationship with one little girl has become support and mentoring for multiple children in two related families. In 2008, she received the Big Sister of the Year award for the Greater Memphis Area as well as volunteer of the year for the state of Tennessee for the organization.

Owen is a board member and past board president for the Memphis Area Women’s Council, a non-profit advocacy organization which seeks to eliminate barriers to women’s access to safety, equity and justice.

Being a visible face in support of reproductive rights has been deadly for physicians in our country but Owen Phillips does not hesitate. She has spoken out consistently in support of women and their sole right to make their own health care decisions with access to a full range of care.

Her heroic stance brings a reasoned, experienced voice to a difficult and urgent topic.

Nadia Matthews


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

Nadia Matthews

As a high school student Nadia Matthews saw many of her peers headed the wrong direction, hanging out in gangs, becoming involved with drugs, getting into fights. She was determined not to be one of those girls and took the initiative to make sure her life went in the right direction.

Nadia and some of the friends she’d had since middle school began discussing the many problems they were all facing. In 2007, Nadia was inspired to set up Lily Roze Foundation. Named after her two grandmothers, the foundation started as a means of bringing teens together to discuss and artistically explore the epidemics that surround them. But it has grown into so much more. The foundation’s motto is “We plant seeds so that the world can watch you bloom.” Nadia says, “I want to watch these children and teenagers bloom not just into successful parents, but into college-educated young adults. Blooming means branching out.”

Even as a child, Nadia was never one to shy away from a microphone, a stage, or a writing opportunity. Her youthful presentations included church holiday speaker, spelling bee commentator, high school news anchor, and school playwright.

As a teen, Nadia saw her first Tyler Perry production. It was the first time she’d seen an urban play catering to a black audience. It addressed issues that were real in her life. She was so inspired that she started writing her own play. The result, “A Ghetto Fairytale,” covered every situation a teen can possibly face, from drugs and alcohol to teen pregnancy.

She says, “We wanted to do a show-and-tell method. We were going into classrooms and talking. We really wanted to show them their life on stage and make it as realistic as possible. I wanted to help people and teach them because I knew they weren’t listening when we were talking to them.”

Due to a last-minute need for a change in venue, the show had a four night run of sold-out performances at LeMoyne-Owen College. She’d arranged to use the theatre for free by promising LeMoyne-Owen the proceeds.

Turned out to be a great deal for the college as it received $10,000, a large contribution from one of its youngest donors ever; a fact later recognized with an award from the college. Unfortunately, Tyler Perry forgot to tell her not to use real names so she ended up losing a few friends. She hasn’t made that mistake again!

Her success brought national attention to her work. Nominated by her sister to be a guest on the Tyra Banks Show, Nadia got the call while at Graceland, sitting in a Cadillac that once belonged to Elvis. Her appearance in March of 2009 helped her to promote the work of the foundation and gained her some international followers.

Never wanting to be the playwright who dropped out for art, after high school Nadia attended the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and completed her degree in journalism at the University of Memphis.

Nadia has continued to write and in 2013 wrote and produced “Bitter/Sweet 16”, which was presented at the Michael Rose Theatre on the University of Memphis campus.

The LilyRoze Foundation continues to thrive. Offering weekly Saturday workshops for summer, fall and spring, the program results in three performances per semester, allowing the young participants, ages 3-17, a chance to work through their stage fright and develop both their self-esteem and natural talents.

And Nadia Matthews thrives as well, having established a conglomerate enterprise, LilyRoze Inc. She is, of course, the CEO. She directs the Miss Prestige Pageant, is co-owner of BeDazzled Birthdays, and is the driving force behind her numerous efforts.

Entrepreneur, activist, motivational speaker, actor, writer, producer/director of films and stage plays, and founder and CEO of The LilyRoze Foundation, Nadia Matthews is indeed the epitome of Initiative.

Barbara King


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Barbara C. King

Barbara King turned a volunteer slot with a local children’s charity into a career dedicated to helping abused children reclaim their lives.

Under her steady hand, the Exchange Club Family Center has grown sevenfold into one of the premiere social service agencies in Memphis.

Barbara grew up in East Memphis and graduated from East High. After a year in a Texas university she came home to Rhodes College to graduate with a B.A. in psychology in 1970. Married to Bob King right after graduation, the couple settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where for five years she was the program director for a preschool program for children with mental and physical disabilities. She was drawn to special education early – her best friend’s brother needed it – so when the couple returned to Memphis, she earned a Master’s degree in Education, specializing in early childhood special education.

While her three children were small, she began volunteering and one volunteer placement turned into a job – doing fundraising and public relations at the Les Passees Rehabilitation Center for children with neuro-motor disabilities. She stayed there for five years and along the way, learned about an agency that was about to go under. Barbara had gained strong experience as a fundraiser so the challenge of rescuing the Exchange Club Center appealed to her.
Lucky for them – and for the abused children of our community.

In 1993, when Barbara got to the center, in dilapidated quarters on Elvis Presley Boulevard, the three staffers and three programs were aimed primarily at child abuse prevention. The local center, opened in 1984, was one of dozens founded and funded across the nation by members of the Exchange Clubs.

Barbara moved the center to better quarters, first on Walnut Grove and then to a building the agency purchased on Union Avenue in 1997 and expanded in 2007.

She says that it became apparent that children dealing with child abuse also were being damaged by domestic violence in their homes. “It was just real obvious that was a form of child abuse whether they had scars or not,” Barbara says. “Yet at the time, they weren’t even considered a victim – so I wrote a mission to provide those services.”

Now open seven days a week, the center offers comprehensive services for children traumatized by violence and abuse as well as their families. The staff offers individual and group counseling for adults and children; educational services such as parenting training for first-time teen mothers and others at risk for child abuse and neglect; anger management for adults, teens and children; play therapy for children as young as two years and Parent Child Interactive Therapy for children under age 7.

The center operates a carefully structured and monitored program for court-ordered supervised visitation to help families shattered by battering.
The Exchange Club center is one of the leading training facilities for students in the fields of social work, psychology, and counseling with over 80 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level students from 8 local schools completing internship or practicums each year.

Today the Exchange Club Family Center- a private, non-profit agency – has a staff of 45, including a clinical psychologist and 19 licensed clinical social workers and counselors. The number of programs has grown from 3 to 23 providing services annually for over 5,500 children and adults who are involved in child abuse and family violence situations. About 10 percent of the center’s clients are from the Spanish-speaking community and are served by bi-lingual therapists.

Most astonishing, perhaps – the budget has grown from $225,000 to $2.5 million!

Barbara saw the potential for broader services to bring healing and renewal to children who had no voice and were deeply injured by physical and sexual abuse and domestic violence. She has worked tirelessly to build relationships with corporate leaders, government officials and non-profit colleagues to find resources necessary to make innovative and important programs happen.
Her steadfast devotion to the needs of children traumatized by abuse has brought hope to thousands.

Shelia Williams


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

Shelia Williams

Have you ever had to rely on a Memphis bus to get to work, to get to the store, or to get to a doctor’s appointment? Have you ever wanted to go to an event outside your neighborhood but knew you couldn’t because you wouldn’t be able to get home because your bus route shuts down at 6:00 pm or, if it’s Sunday, doesn’t run at all?

Shelia Williams has and she is determined to do something about that.

In 2000, Shelia Williams, a working mother who then had four children, started looking at a way to make ends meet. She had a car that was constantly in need of repair and decided to just ride the bus. At the time she lived in the Raleigh-Frayser area and worked at a spa miles and neighborhoods away near Park and Primacy Parkway. Taking the bus meant a 2 ½ hour trip on three buses.

But this is more than one woman’s story.

Shelia found that those who ride the bus become a part of your family. You check in on their health and families, worry about them when they’re not there, and you cry with them because they lose their jobs because of the bus being late one time too many.

In Memphis and Shelby County, 90% of bus riders are African-American. A majority of those on the bus are women, and 60% have incomes of $18,000 or less. Those who depend on bus service include people with disabilities, students, workers and seniors. Cuts to bus service combined with inequitable economic development and residential segregation disproportionately affect low-income residents and communities of color. All these facts mean that the funding, planning and function of mass transit is a civil rights issue.

In late 2011, frustrations including inconsistent schedules, route cuts, safety concerns and customer service issues led Shelia to call the number from a flyer she found on the bus. This took her to an early meeting of what was then the Transportation Task Force. There she met community activist and dynamo Mother Georgia King who is also a Woman of Achievement for Courage 1994.

In February 2012, Shelia, along with Mother King, co-founded the Memphis Bus Riders Union. The grassroots organization fights for better bus service in our city, speaking up about MATA practices and policies with key decision-makers, including the MATA board and administration and city government.

The riders union fights racism and oppression based on socioeconomic status as it is reflected in our city’s grossly inadequate public transportation system – advocating for improved services.

In June 2014, Mayor A C Wharton nominated Shelia to serve on the MATA Board which governs the transit agency. This group votes on MATA’s budget, routes, schedules and fare. Many board members come from big business and Shelia admits that at first she was nervous about her reception, but she has been completely welcomed and her voice is heard.

Now the board is welcoming to members of the public and a change in process means that the public is heard before votes are taken on MATA issues.

Routes are still limited and some buses do still run late, but progress has been made. Customer service and signage have improved.

But there’s still plenty to change – expanded routes, schedules, better safety and nicer relationship between bus riders and employees.

And Shelia’s vision is bigger than that. She wants to do away with the stigma associated with riding the bus in Memphis. She seeks a cultural change that results in everyone riding the bus together, going to work or to play by bus. For this to happen, bus service has to become consistently dependable, with better routes, longer hours and a new image.

Shelia Williams is determined to see this happen and for that we salute her.

Amerah Shabazz-Bridges


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

Amerah Shabazz-Bridges

As a child, Amerah Shabazz-Bridges lived in the dark shadows of incestuous rape, suffering at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, a man who rightfully should have been her protector. Now, years later, she courageously tells her story and uses her experience to help others recover from the trauma of abuse.

Beginning at the age of 8 and continuing until she left home at age 15, Amerah was repeatedly abused. Powerless, she did not know how to express her pain and fear. Her mother was also abused while Amerah lay listening in the next room. When she was finally able to tell other adults that she trusted and loved, including her mother, they refused to believe her.

In order to survive, she learned to mask her pain. As a 13-year old she needed validations and wanted to hear someone say, “I believe you,” and “It wasn’t your fault.” Instead she was told “He said he didn’t do it.”

She became a people-pleaser, a manipulator, and was promiscuous. She had learned to survive the best she could.

She finally left home when her abuser cursed and said, in her mother’s presence, that she couldn’t stay if she wouldn’t do what he wanted. She started packing her belongings into empty beer boxes immediately.

As a teenager and young adult she sought peace in the church and at the mosque. Well-meaning people told her to just pray about it; to forgive and forget. She didn’t understand why God had allowed this to happen.

But she continued to search for answers. Amerah says, “My Higher Power heard my moaning and I hesitantly started down the road to recovery.”

She started that journey at the age of 32 when she and her 7 children moved to Chicago.

She moved her family to Washington, DC, in the mid-90s and it was there that Amerah really started telling her story. She found Co-Dependents Anonymous, which led her to Survivors of Incest Anonymous. She volunteered for the Rape Crisis Hotline, consoling women who called the hot line, meeting victims at the hospital, giving speeches aimed at young women, helping them have the courage to face their pain and to heal. Amerah also formed two support groups for women who were victims of incest.

Amerah would read newspaper articles, contact shelters and say, “This is who I am; this is what I do. If I share my story, they may know they can change. We have questions and answers and then healing starts.”

In 1996, Amerah had found enough acceptance to return to Jackson, Mississippi, to care for her mother. She continued her mission of helping others heal and became a court-appointed advocate. She earned a degree at age 66, remarried her first husband the next day and moved to Memphis. Dedicated to the work of healing, she had contacted the Memphis Child Advocacy Center a year before the move. She phoned the center just as soon as she got to town and continued telling her story.

Her work has impacted the lives of countless persons who have been abused, giving them the power to transform their lives. She has won awards for her work in Washington, Jackson and Memphis. And she continues to grow.

She says, “I am like a big onion. I pull off one layer at a time. At first it’s hard and may break but I keep pulling until it becomes so easy that the next layer just slides right off.” That’s how healing works.

Amerah’s openness in telling her story has brought countless rewards to the Child Advocacy Center. She has inspired donors to contribute and has helped police recruits and officers understand family violence in a personal and powerful way. To quote her nominators, “Amerah’s words help us continue to do what we do, to see firsthand the beauty of healing, and to help us remember what is important.”

For her courageous voice – we honor Amerah Shabazz-Bridges.

Emma Currin Barbee Wilburn


for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Emma Currin Barbee Wilburn

Rising from poverty, Emma Wilburn became one of the most successful and wealthy African-American businesswomen in Memphis in the early part of the 20th century. Her life is doubly impressive because she did this as a widowed mother of four during the height of the system of segregation, when the Jim Crow laws worked to keep African-Americans poor and at the bottom of society.

Born in Lauderdale County, Tennessee, in 1876, she was one of 13 children of former slaves Hudson and Harriet Currin. Before she was 25, she was widowed twice and left to raise four children on her own. Through hard work, she opened a small hotel in Halls, Mississippi, in the late 1890’s. But she saw more opportunity in nearby Memphis and moved there, working for the Zion Cemetery Company, which ran the oldest African-American cemetery in the city. The funeral business was one of the few ways African-Americans could be successful under segregation, since it involved the African-American community apart from white Southerners.

In 1914, she bought an existing funeral home and renamed it the Emma Wilburn Funeral Home. She made her business a success by hard work and showmanship. In a riding habit, on a white horse, she led each funeral procession to the cemetery. She was so successful she opened another funeral parlor in Dyersburg, Tennessee. She leased her Memphis funeral home to the National Burial Association in the 1930’s and bought 75 acres of land she named New Park Cemetery in South Memphis. At the time cemeteries for African-Americans in the South were small and hidden. According to historian Miriam DeCosta Willis, New Park was one of the premiere cemeteries in the whole South. At New Park, Emma Wilburn continued her funeral escorts and made the cemetery a community center for African-Americans. Each year, she held a popular community-wide memorial celebration, as well as sponsoring other social activities regularly, which made her well-known and popular. She founded the Tennessee Burial Association for African-Americans.

She taught her children the funeral business. Her son, Hudson Barbee, opened the Barbee Casket Company; her youngest child, Cutie, opened the Cutie Thomas Funeral Home in Lauderdale, Tennessee; her daughter Minnie and son-in-law Johnson Rideout opened a funeral home in Los Angeles, California.

In order to attend the opening of the business, in 1935 Emma Wilburn bought an American Airlines ticket. At this time when segregation was in place and airlines did not have Jim Crow seating, local authorities told her that her ticket was not valid. But she got in touch with the airline headquarters in Chicago to protest and won, becoming the first African-American woman to fly from Memphis on American Airlines and desegregating the airlines for future black passengers.

She died two years later in 1937, a wealthy, successful woman. For her strength as a single mother running a business, for her exceptional business ability at a time of severe disadvantage for African-Americans, and for her courage, we honor her tonight as our 2015 Woman of Achievement for Heritage.