Marilou Awiakta

Women of Achievement

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

Marilou Awiakta

Writer Marilou Awiakta has said with deep conviction that “Nature is female, and nature is thought. Therefore, the thinking woman is one of the profound harmonies of the universe. Even with the efforts of the women’s movement, we’ve made slow progress in changing the American concept of women as sentiment: passive, all-giving, all-suffering. This concept is not true and it is damaging to women in our society.”

This belief has led her to give generously to many efforts to aid women: stopping violence against women, support of the ERA, and securing better treatment for female prisoners. She is on the board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Women’s Network of the Girl Scout Council, and she chairs the literary panel of the Tennessee Arts Commission. She also is a founder of the Far Away Cherokee Association, which became the Native American Intertribal Association.

When friends speak of Marilou Awiakta, her intuitiveness is always mentioned first. This, combined with her skills in relating the familiar to the cosmic, is the basis for an appeal that cuts through barriers of class, race, age and gender. Her two books, “Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet” and “Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery” were chosen for the U.S. Information Agency 1984 show “Women in the Contemporary World.”

She has read her poems on campuses across the nation, behind prison doors in Shelby County, and to countless children of Memphis.

Marilou Awiakta is a woman who knows who she is and helps us see who we are or may become. She lives her Native American tradition that calls for the true artist to help create harmony and healing in the environment. She has fused her Cherokee-Appalachian heritage with the experience of growing up on the atomic frontier in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and through her writing, lectures and personal interactions, all the while sharing her unique vision with us all.

Marilou received the Distinguished Tennessee Writer Award in 1989 and the 1991 Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award. Her third book, Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom was published in 1994. She and her work are profiled in the Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States 1994.

Mary Robinson

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Mary Robinson

When she was 16 Mary Wright Sullivan Robinson graduated as Valedictorian from her high school. She was awarded an academic scholarship to college but World War II and family considerations prevented her from attending. After years of work in a male-dominated field, she was one of the first three women to become a registered stockbroker in the State of Tennessee. She retired in 1987 after 20 years as a pioneer in that profession.

Mary was in the forefront of women’s progress through her efforts for job banks, WAGES, the Chamber of Commerce, the YWCDA, the Girls Club, NOW, the Black White Social Group, and Republican Career Women. She was a founder and first president of the Women’s Resources Center, which in turn gave birth to two pivotal groups for Memphis women — the Spouse Abuse Center and the Rape Crisis Center. She also is a founding member of Network. In 1975 she received the National Conference of Christian and Jews first Women’s Rights Award.

Known as the “founding mother of women’s liberation in Memphis,” she has worked on behalf of the personal and professional advancement of women for so long that many are unaware that she paved the way to our acceptance. She has also been active in environmental issues and in the Civil Rights movement. Equally important as her public endeavors are her private ones. Countless women point to Mary as their role model, mentor, advisor, counselor, motivator, door opener and friend. She has shown others that they are special and capable of great accomplishment. Her example of commitment, hard work, generosity and courage inspired women to lives of public leadership and private independence and security.

From Mary Robinson’s steadfast example many have learned that respect and tolerance for all people, and the determination and courage to act on one’s beliefs, can enable us each to become a “woman of achievement.”

Thom Thi Bach

Women of Achievement

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

Thom Thi Bach

In 1977 Thom Thi Bach left Vietnam in a boat. She fled her country with 10 children, one of whom was only 12 months old. After four days and nights in a boat, the family landed in Malaysia where they spent seven long months in a refugee camp. At the camp, U.S. Catholic Charities found her and helped her come to the United States in 1978. Her husband could not get out of Vietnam; he died there several years later.

In Saigon she had been a professional egg roll maker, a skill she was taught by her mother. As she searched for a way to support her family in Memphis, she seized upon those homemade Vietnamese egg rolls and proceeded to turn them out in her kitchen.

The Health Department twice declared the egg rolls illegal, however, on technical grounds. Thom Bach, still struggling to comprehend English, sat through hearings on her right to make egg rolls and said to a reporter at one point: “I ask you where you get license for Vietnamese egg rolls, but nobody can tell me.” Finally, Health officials ruled that she could make her egg rolls in any commercial kitchen, but not at home, and she began to make them in local restaurants.

In 1982 she opened the Indochina Care at 2146 Young Street, specializing in Vietnamese food, including the egg rolls. She operates the restaurant with the help of her children — the older ones waiting tables and doing homework between orders, and younger ones playing on the floor behind the counter.

Necessity — to flee Communism and to seek a better future — made her family into “boat people. Initiative — the determination to make a good life — made her a Memphis businesswoman, restaurant owner and, above all else, an independent woman.

Following a fire in 1990, Thom relocated and opened Minh Chau Asian Foods at 1324 Madison. She continues to work to help friends and relatives leave refugee camps to start new lives

Nancy Hastings-Sehested

Women of Achievement

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

Nancy Hastings-Sehested

Despite the repeated refusal of the 14.6 million-member Southern Baptist Convention to approve the elevation of female ministers to the pastorate, Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested continued to seek just such a role.

When finally asked to serve as pastor of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in Memphis, she defended her commitment before a conference of the all-male Shelby County Baptist Association. She was expelled from its “fellowship.”

The 36-year-old Southern Baptist minister — and daughter and granddaughter of Southern Baptist ministers — was told by the Association that only men could preach the gospel. Rev. Sehested said, “What the Association told the world is that God can do all things except call a woman to preach. In my mind, it was an issue of the freedom of the Holy Spirit. And what the Association said was, ‘No.’”

More than 450 Southern Baptist women are ordained for the ministry, but only 11 serve as pastors or co-pastors. Prescott became the largest Southern Baptist Church headed by a woman and the first in Tennessee. Supportive letters and telegrams poured in from all over the country.

Nancy’s became one of THE stories in the United States in 1987. Major newspapers published stories about the dispute. More recently, she was featured in Bill Moyers’ documentary examining the denomination’s policies and politics.

Through it all, Nancy Sehested stood firm in her calling, in her commitment, in her right to serve her God. As one nominator wrote, she is a heroic example for today’s youth — and their parents also.

By early 1994, Nancy said, about 900 Southern Baptist women were ordained and 25 were serving as pastors or co-pastors. Most of them were serving tiny churches.

Nancy Hastings Sehested is now co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.

Julia B. Hooks

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Julia B. Hooks

The life of Julia B. Hooks spanned 90 years and encompassed much of the history of the United States. Julia was born free in 1842, the daughter of a former slave. Her mother, Laura, was the daughter of Captain Thomas F. Marshall of Kentucky and his slave. Laura had been given her freedom when she married a man who was free.

Julia also was a musical prodigy, accompanying her mother in vocal concerts on the piano at the age of six.

It was the experience of traveling with her mother to perform that made Julia aware of the importance of color in the thinking of Americans. While her mother and older sister Mary were quite fair, she was copper-skinned like her father. Sometimes on trains heading to engagements Julia and her mother were mistaken for a mistress and little slave. The impression this made on the child never left her as an adult.

After the Civil War Julia’s family moved to Berea, Kentucky so that the children could receive an education at the integrated Berea College. After three years of college, during the last year of which Julia taught music to other students, black and white, she left to go to Mississippi. At that time in the history of the United States, Reconstruction brought new equality, and indeed in Mississippi, dominance by the numerically superior blacks. It offered exciting opportunities for the young teacher, including working in Blanche Bruce’s successful campaign for U.S. Senator. Reconstruction’s changes were short-lived, however, so Julia moved to Memphis in 1876.

Julia’s life in Memphis was centered on children, civil rights, and music. She taught in the public schools, but finding them to be inadequate, started her own private Hooks Cottage School. Jim Crow laws were steadily eroding the gains made by the Civil War, but Julia, educated beyond most women of her time, refused to accept the new restrictions on the rights of blacks. Time after time, she entered a theater only to be ejected because she was sitting in the “white folks” section.

Julia persisted in trying to achieve civil rights for all people. Her grandson, Benjamin Hooks, former president of the NAACP, is an example of the extent of her influence into the present day.

Among other civic activities, Julia and her husband Charles helped raise funds to establish a much-needed Colored Orphans and Old Folks Homes. Julia organized the Liszt Millard Club to provide a musical opportunity for blacks in a segregated world. She operated her own music school. She taught harmony to one student who would become famous, W.C. Handy. She was called “the angel of Beale Street” by Lt. George W. Lee because of her selfless work on behalf of the poor. Along with her husband, Julia administered the first juvenile detention home in the city for black youths. Even when Charles Hooks was shot and killed by one of the inmates, Julia’s work with the juveniles continued.

Julia B. Hooks’ legacy for the future is the determination to make this a more just world for all people, of all ages and races. Her courage inspires us to fight prejudice and to enhance the world around us.

Lucille Ewing


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

Lucille Ewing

Award-winning performers and ordinary kids alike grew like giant morning glories over the walls of Southern segregation because Lucille Ewing dared to teach life’s lessons through the medium of a theater for all children.

For more than 25 years Lucille was the driving force of Memphis Children’s Theater. She followed in the footsteps of her aunt, Martha Macan Byrnes, who initiated theater for children through the Memphis Park Commission.  It evolved from Recreation Players, a program on WMPS radio in the late 1940s and ‘50s. In the early 1950s, Lucille launched plans for a full-blown theater that would be run by and for children. They would act, build sets and be totally responsible for each play they acted.

At that time, Memphis was even more racially divided than it is today. Yet Lucille made it clear that any interested young person would be welcome in the theater, regardless of race or economic background Productions were cast according to talent and availability — not type.

Despite active attempts to close the theater, funding shortages and strong sentiments in the community that children shouldn’t be so engaged, she persevered for nearly three decades. She broadened the children’s outlook by financing trips to theater productions in the region. On one such outing in Alabama, she and her children held a spontaneous sit-in when a black child with them was refused service in a restaurant.

Lucille’s efforts spanned creation of other children’s theaters throughout the region. Whether regular folks or award-winning performers, the hundreds of Memphis children Lucille Ewing touched grew — the better for her determination to give them a stage on which to stretch their talents.


Lucille Ewing passed away October 22, 2001, aged 86.

Alzada Clark


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

Alzada Clark

In a 25-year career as a labor organizer, Alzada Clark has braved personal threats and racial epithets in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma. In 1965 she became the first black woman organizer of state employees in Tennessee and she is responsible for establishment of the local Service Employees International Union.

She was asked in 1967 to organize the women in a furniture plant in Canton, Mississippi. She went into that racially troubled state to help the employees. When the vote failed, she told the men in charge that she would lead the effort next time. Thanks to Alzada’s leadership and courage, at the end of a year of work the vote did pass and the union was organized.

When workers received their first salary increases, two came to Alzada to thank her. One, a black man, said, “Now I can eat a piece of steak more than once a year.” The other man, who was white, said, “Now my kids won’t have to wear tennis shoes in the winter.”

Later, Alzada organized the furniture workers in her native Memphis and in several other Mid-South towns. While president of the local Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, she became the first woman elected to the national position of Second Vice President. That organization also awarded her the Fannie Lou Hamer Award for her efforts on behalf of the people.

Alzada is a vocal civil rights activist and served on the NAACP board. When she sees a problem of injustice she speaks up, despite the possibility of being jailed or losing a job. Often in her career she has required the assistance of bodyguards.

In the words of one nominator, “She has the determination and the courage to seek what is right morally, what is good, and what is noble. She stands as a beacon of light amid the darkness.”


Alzada Clark passed away November 26, 2009.