Suffragists of Shelby County

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Suffragists of Shelby County

In 1920, Tennessee was the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th Amendment. As the nation celebrated the 70th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted to women the right to vote, Women of Achievement honored the contributions of the Suffragists of Shelby County.

Several women played important roles, yet we only have records on a few. Elizabeth Avery Meriwether published The Tablet, in which she campaigned for the enfranchisement of women. This Memphian was the national president of the American Women Suffrage Association, succeeding Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Elizabeth Meriwether traveled around the nation to speak for women’s rights and suffrage. But she began her efforts on behalf of women in Memphis. In 1876, she rented the Memphis Theatre to talk about “American Law as it relates to Women,” and documented how the laws treated women as the property of men.

Elizabeth Lisle Saxon was appointed to the presidency of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and she traveled to the state for the cause. She spent much of her time in Memphis, writing and speaking on women’s causes. She combined her work on suffrage and temperance. Working with her was Lide Meriwether, Elizabeth’s sister-in-law. After raising her own family, Lide championed many causes related to women (temperance and anti-vice causes). She even took prostitutes into her home and trained them for other occupations. In the 1880s and 1890s, her attention was devoted to getting women the vote. As president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Lide organized petition drives and even traveled to Washington to testify before Congress.

The fight for women’s right to vote was not limited to white women. Women of color were also involved in this struggle. Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis in 1863. In addition to her many accomplishments in Washington D.C., Mary was a national leader working on the advancement of women and African Americans. She was an active member in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She spoke at national conventions and kept Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, and her other white sisters abreast of the specific problems of colored women.

Ida B. Wells, honored as a Woman of Achievement in 1987, was not quiet on this issue. She was an ardent and dedicated suffragette.

The work of these early pioneers was continued by younger women who joined at critical moments. One such woman was Charl Ormond Williams. Known primarily as an educator, she served as Shelby County superintendent of schools for eight years and was the National Educational Association’s official representative in Washington. Charl was also a politician. In 1920, she served as the vice chairperson of the Democratic National Committee. In Nashville, she led the combined forces to a victory in lobbying the state of Tennessee to ratify the 19th Amendment.

The Meriwethers, Saxon, Terrell, Wells, Williams, and their nameless sisters made an important contribution which the women of Shelby County and the nation must acknowledge and use wisely.

Virginia Dunaway

Women of Achievement

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

Virginia Dunaway

In 1981, Memphis had thousands of hungry people — and no way to feed them. Thanks to the diligence of Virginia Dunaway, the Memphis Food Bank now distributes more than three million pounds of donated, wholesome food to 226 charitable programs and food pantries that feed the needy across the Mid-South.

Virginia Dunaway was active in Balmoral Presbyterian Church in Christian education. She had raised two sons and worked in her husband’s dermatology office when she became a VISTA volunteer on a neighborhood history project. With a year of her five-year VISTA term left, the Metropolitan Interfaith Association sent her to a training session on food banks. When she returned and said it sounded like something MIFA could do, MIFA leaders replied, “Go do it.”

Do it, she did. She designed systems for efficient food distribution, identified sources of food from individuals and industry, and worked with volunteers who solicited donations and community support. For two years, she wore blue jeans to work and kept a suit in the trunk of her car. In the jeans, she drove a truck for food runs, unloaded the truck, sorted food or scrubbed floors. In the suit, she met with business and community leaders to build awareness for fighting hunger.

In 1985, Virginia was named director of MIFA food programs and project director of MIFA MEALS. In 1988, the Food Bank became an independent agency and Virginia became its executive director as it moved to a larger warehouse at 239 Dudley. She meanwhile has helped the Second Harvest National Food Bank Network establish food banks in Jackson, Tennessee; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Jackson, Mississippi.

The Memphis Food Bank provides food for 284,000 meals and snacks each month to the ill, the needy and to infants. Gid Smith, former MIFA executive director and a co-worker, summed up Virginia’s personal determination this way: “To my knowledge, she has done more to overcome hunger in Memphis than any other private citizen.”


Virginia retired from the Food Bank in September 1991. She received the DAR Medal of Honor in 1993. She travels as a consultant for Second Harvest National Food Bank Network.

Elaine Lee Turner and Joan Lee Nelson

Joan Lee-Nelson
Elaine Lee-Turner
Women of Achievement

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

Elaine Lee Turner and Joan Lee Nelson

Late one night in 1983, Elaine Lee Turner and Joan Lee-Nelson sat up discussing the fact that African-American children in Memphis did not know their own history. For these two women, who were intensely aware of their own family’s trail five generations from the slave ship, that problem demanded a solution. They decided they could show children their roots. Within a matter of months, Heritage Tours was a reality.

First they took their idea to various local funding sources, all of which turned them down. Not to be defeated, the women invested their own savings. Joan resigned her position as a job counselor with the City of Memphis; Elaine, a former teacher, reentered the professional world. With a little money and a lot of energy, the two women started the first African-American-owned tour company in the state. Their mission: to discover, chronicle and share the past of the Mid-South’s African-American community.

The sisters grew up in North Memphis hearing their mother, the family historian, tell of her father who was a boy when the slaves were freed. In 1965, Jet magazine named the 14-member Lee clan “the most arrested civil rights family in America.” “We participated because our heritage had been instilled in us,” Elaine said. Said Joan, “We are letting young people know what had to be done to get them where they are now.”

Taking the initiative is not new to these sisters. Elaine and Joan took the lead in organizing the Ida B. Wells Society and helped rally national recognition of Wells’ struggle for racial justice. Their work has won them awards, including the Shelby County Historical Commission’s Robert R. Church Award in 1989 for outstanding contribution in researching and presenting black historical heritage to national and international travelers. Indeed, much of their work involves collecting information through original research that otherwise would have been lost. Their interviews have turned up so much information that they plan a book.

“You have nothing to hold onto without your history,” said Joan, explaining the initiative they took. “You don’t know who you are. You don’t know where you are. You can’t envision the future … We see children’s eyes light up, knowing, ‘I’ve got a future.’”

Jocelyn Wurzburg

Women of Achievement

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

Jocelyn Wurzburg

In 1968, Memphis was a focus of the nation’s turmoil following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg stepped forward to take constructive, courageous action in our city.

Jocie became familiar with an organization in other cities called the Panel of American Women, and she single-handedly brought its services to Memphis. The Panel’s purpose was to eliminate racial and religious prejudice by going before groups to tell personal stories, answer questions and share outlooks. In 1990 this might seem tame, but in 1968 and the years thereafter, it was a tough assignment. Many groups took personal issue with the message and the messengers.

Jocie Wurzburg headed a group of about 40 women — black, white, Catholic, Jew, Protestant — who labored to learn new skills and educate each other on issues. Some of the Panel went with Jocie to the mayor’s office to lobby for reason in the volatile atmosphere. This effort made Time magazine, albeit derisively. The story reported on “housewives in white gloves …”

The Panel led her into other human rights work, including project director for the Memphis Martin Luther King Memorial 1976-77 and service on the Social Action Commission, Family Life Committee and Consultation on Conscience biennial sessions of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. She was appointed to the National Commission for the Observance of International Women’s Year and to the State Advisory Committee of the Civil Rights Commission.

Although the Panel of American Women ended service in 1980, Jocie Wurzburg’s work as a lecturer on equal employment and human relations continued and her career as a lawyer and divorce mediator began. Never one to stop organizing, she directed her love of music to the founding of the Jazz Society of Memphis.

It was not easy for this one-time East Memphis homemaker to become an activist — but an activist she was. The Panel of American Women was a courageous force in our city during those years. It was quoted, called upon, cited as a positive force. As her nominator said, “Jocie made all of that happen. She never got discouraged. She never let her energy flag.”


Jocelyn Wurzburg received the Shelby County Diversity Award in 2008. She also won the NAACP Life Time Achievement award in 2017. Later that year, Planned Parenthood awarded her the Judy Scharff Award for the Panel of American Women. The Tennessee Human Rights Commission established the Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg Civil Rights Award in her name. Today, she offers Mediation Services as a saner way of dealing with conflicts.

Dinia Cruz

Women of Achievement

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

Dinia Cruz

More than five years ago, Dr. Dinia Cruz, a pediatrician educated in her native Philippines and in New York, left the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department and opened her medical practice in Southwest Memphis.

In 1986 she took her practice “on the streets” to address health care needs of people who were going without proper medical attention — often because they had no transportation or did not know they needed care. Dinia knew that her primary area, Memphis’ 38109 zip code, had 66,200 people but only two practicing physicians. She’s one of them and she’s the only pediatrician. Her objective was to go to patients who could not come to her.

At first, Dinia’s 36-foot mobile clinic visited 19 public housing developments six days a week, serving primarily children. Her patients included those who fall between the cracks — people who are not eligible for Medicaid and have no money for doctors. She gives such people free treatment, including medicine and lab work. Her motivation? “I used to see families who never had a shot … I took care of that. So the reward is there,” she said.

But the rising load proved too heavy even for this energetic physician. She now focuses on the five housing projects that are the most isolated from medical care. She takes the mobile clinic out two days a week, with vaccine in the freezer, throat culture gear in the fridge, blood-testing and urine-testing apparatus on the kitchen counter, and a built-in couch doubling as an examination table.

Dinia has received local and national attention for her work in the housing projects. She was recognized by Newsweek magazine in 1986 as “One of America’s 100 Heroes” and again in Newsweek in 1989 in Amway Corporation’s salute to “A Nation of Good Neighbors.” In 1987 Dinia, who immigrated to this country just 10 years earlier, received the Filipino-American Society’s Community Service Award.

“The service has to be rendered,” she humbly says of her heroism. “I find more peace, more fulfillment taking care of the needy ones. If I don’t care for them, who will?”

Faced with turmoil and financial uncertainty due to health care reform, Dinia closed her clinic in 1993. She is working full-time at a Baptist Minor Medical Clinic as a general practitioner and in pediatrics part-time at the Naval Hospital in Millington. She hopes to donate the mobile clinic to a community hospital.

Mertie Buckman

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Mertie Buckman

Mertie Buckman has used her social, business and personal resources consistently for nearly 50 years to make our community more responsible to human rights and to social issues affecting people from all walks of life, regardless of race, religion or ethnic cultures.

From sewing clothes for needy children to spearheading creation of facilities like the MWCA’s Raleigh Branch, her work aimed at breaking down the barriers that separate people. A woman with a college degree when very few women achieved that goal, she taught in three states before coming to Memphis where she dove headline into civic work. She campaigned for water fluoridation, was president of the YWCA board of directors in 1950 and again in 1970, and a state and local officer of Church Women United.

Mertie led the successful effort in 1954 to start a public library in Raleigh. In 1972 she started a YWCA center at Raleigh Presbyterian Church, where she serves as an elder. She was a working board member for the Transitional Center for Women from 1973 until it closed. The Center helped women start a new life after incarceration.

Today Mertie Buckman is 85 and still diving headlong into issues and civic work that matter.

She is an honorary trustee at Rhodes College, a trustee at Christian Brothers College and on the advisor’s council at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. She is membership chair for Church Women United and a member of the YWCA Advisory Board. In addition to her obvious leadership qualities, her philanthropic contributions reach beyond the scope of her immediate community and probably never will be completely known.

Mertie has preserved and steadfastly stood by her principles. She has never wavered from her ideals and continues to strive for her dream of a better, fairer world for us all.

In 1923 Mertie was depicted in a marble sculpture call “Essence of Mertie” at Buckman Hall at Christian Brothers University, a rare honor for a Memphis woman.

Elma Neal Roane

Women of Achievement

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

Elma Neal Roane

Elma Neal Roane led the struggle for women’s rights in athletics in local, regional and national settings for four decades, helping change forever the treatment of female athletes in Tennessee.

She came to women’s athletics as a young participant. She was a champion in basketball and softball for Messick High School in the 1930s, on all-district and all-state teams, winning awards too numerous to mention. And that was only the beginning.

Choosing education as her lifetime calling, Elma gained undergraduate and graduate degrees and began her teaching career at Treadwell High School. In 1946 she joined the Memphis State College faculty, where she ultimately held the position of director of the Women’s Division, Physical Education Department, and coordinator of MSU Women’s Athletics. In those positions she fought for the rights of women students to have funding, space and equipment, publicity and support equal to male athletes. She championed in Tennessee and particularly at MSU implementation of Title IX federal legislation that provided equal access to athletics for women.

All the while, Elma remained an active athlete herself, making a mark in women’s softball, tennis, badminton and golf. She has been named to the Memphis Park Commission’s Hall of Fame, received an award from the Tennessee Commission on the Status of Women, and in 1984 was named Greater Memphis State Educator of the Year, to list only a few of her honors.

It is easy today to forget the atmosphere 20 years ago and more when a few women with vision in the United States began campaigning for equal rights in sports. Opponents painted images of men and women forced to compete and warned of a drain on funding for male athletic programs. That opposition proved erroneous.

A fighter and a winner, Elma had the special vision needed to lead the way so that women can play and win under equal treatment of the law.