Sara Roberta Church

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Sara Roberta Church

Sara Roberta Church was a pioneer in social justice and political activism. With unstinting dedication, she worked to advance women’s leadership positions in local and national politics. With her aunts, Mary Church Terrell and Annette E. Church, Roberta Church was a champion of women’s rights.

In the fall of 1940, when it appeared the Republican candidate, Wendell Wilkie, might defeat President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the E. H. Crump organization moved to eliminate her father, Robert R. Church Jr., as a Republican political leader. They seized his property, including his home and office, allegedly for taxes. Church, campaigning in Pennsylvania, never returned to reside in Memphis. He spent much of his remaining life in Chicago and Washington.

After her father’s death in 1952, Roberta returned to Memphis. Despite her family’s enemies, she ran for public office, replacing her father on the ballot. She became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Republican State Executive Committee.

In 1953, following the election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Roberta was appointed Minority Groups Consultant in the Department of Labor. Her position as an African-American woman negotiating with company officials over fair employment practices required unusual skill and diplomacy. Roberta later accepted a career appointment with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare working as a consultant with the Rehabilitation Services Administration. In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Roberta Church to the President’s Advisory Council on Adult Education.

The author of many professional articles, Roberta wrote, with Annette E. Church, a family history, The Robert R. Churches American Memphians. Recognizing the dearth of historical materials on African-American Memphians, she and Ronald A. Walter wrote Nineteenth Century Memphis Families of Color, 1850-1900. Her last published works were Facts About Beale Street, 1849-1870 and Occupations of Women, 1855-1870.

Ebony magazine recognized Roberta in a feature story. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity presented her with a certificate of merit for promoting job opportunities for minority youth. The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History selected her to be honored during Black History Month. She was included in the first edition of Who’s Who in American Women and was cited for high-quality performance of duties by the federal government.

Roberta Church loved Memphis deeply and returned to her home community following retirement. Her interest in local history involved active work in the Shelby County Historical Commission, especially the preservation of Church Park, at one time the largest park and entertainment center for African-Americans in the South.

Frances Dancy Hooks

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Frances Dancy Hooks

The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a turning point in the lives of many Memphians, and it certainly played a significant role in directing the course of Frances Hooks’ life. She and her husband, Benjamin, then a criminal court judge and the pastor of two Baptist congregations, were close confidants of King, and his death struck them both very hard. But through her pain and devastation, Frances was equally determined to continue his message in Memphis. The tragedy inspired her to better Memphis through her work as educator and as the wife of an active minister and civil rights leader in the African-American community.

Frances worked as a guidance counselor at Carver High School in South Memphis. By bringing together hundreds of volunteers in an effort called Memphis Volunteer Placement, Frances began a major effort to ensure that her students knew what career options were available to them, how to apply for financial aid for college, and how to complete a college application. Because of these efforts, many of her students went on to graduate from college, something many of them never before dreamed possible.

After acquiring her master’s degree in education, Frances continued her mission to improve educational and employment opportunities for minorities and the poor in the decades following the 1960s. She helped create a program that allowed pregnant teens to continue their education. Her dedication to improving the Riverview-Kansas neighborhood in Memphis continues through her involvement in the Riverview Kansas Day Care Center and other programs.

Frances’ most steadfast role has probably been at her husband’s side, supporting his career as a judge and minister, and later his appointment to the Federal Communications Commission and as national director of the NAACP.

Today, Frances and Ben have returned to Memphis, where she serves as a trustee of the Memphis College of Art, is a founding member of Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, and a member of the Memphis Race Relations Institute.

Deborah M. Clubb

Women of Achievement

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

Deborah M. Clubb

In March 1984, a group met to discuss establishing awards to recognize accomplishments of local women. They were all too familiar with the abundance of tributes for prominent men while women’s contributions seemed taken for granted. One person was the instigator for calling these women together for the cause: Deborah Clubb.

The result of her effort was Women of Achievement, a diverse and community-wide coalition of women’s groups and other supporters. It was Deborah’s vision as the founding president of Women of Achievement that has brought people together each March for 13 years, to honor women of all races, all creeds and all backgrounds each year as we celebrate Women’s History Month. “Our presence at Women of Achievement events says we believe in celebrating women, our victories, our work, as we make choices, take chances and change ourselves and our world,’’ Deborah said.

Deborah grew up on family farms in Henry County, Ky., the eldest of five children sharing cattle and crop chores. She noticed ways that boys and girls were treated differently but had no name for her observations and feelings. In the fall of her first year at Transylvania University, she took a short-term class taught by a female literature professor and a male history professor. Its title – “Up Against the Wall, Mother: Women in History and Literature.’’ It was 1972. The second wave of the American women’s movement was underway and those two teachers, the first feminists she ever knew beyond some new college friends, gave her words to express what she had observed all her life about roles, about place, about why things were as they were – and why those things needed to change. “Speaking up and out and giving a voice to wrongs I saw became part of me,’’ Deborah said.

With degrees in English and history from Transy in 1976, she took a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern in 1977 and got a job as associate editor at Farm Business Inc., in Washington, D.C., covering agriculture policy and Congress for farm magazines. In 1978, she became the first female reporter on The Commercial Appeal’s business news staff. In the nearly 20 years since, she has campaigned daily as a reporter and editor to improve the role of women in the newsroom and their portrayal in the newspaper.

In her personal life, she has worked equally hard for women’s issues, as the first female chair of deacons at Lindenwood Christian Church, president and steering committee member of Network, on the board of the Economic Justice for Women Coalition and as a mentor for Girls, Inc.

Mid-South women now receive the recognition they deserve because of Deborah Clubb’s vision of an exciting celebration night, reminiscent of the Oscars, where women would be the stars.

Deborah retired from The Commercial Appeal in December 2003 after more than 25 years and is pursuing other writing and advocacy projects.

Lisa Herdahl

Women of Achievement

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

Lisa Herdahl

A heroine is a woman noted for her courageous and daring acts. Courageous and daring are words used many times to describe Lisa Herdahl, a woman who exhibited tremendous heroism in her legal battle against the religious practices of the Pontotoc County School District.

In 1993, Herdahl and her family moved from Wisconsin to Mississippi and into the Pontotoc County School District. Five of her six children attended the North Pontotoc Attendance Center and were exposed to daily devotionals over the intercom, biblical history classes subsidized by local churches, group prayer sessions in the gymnasium and religious videotapes shown in classes.

With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group, People for the American Way, Lisa challenged these long-standing religious practices publicly when she brought suit against the school systems.

The trial, which drew national media attention, was declared a victory for Herdahl and her family in July 1996. A U.S. district judge ruled that the Pontotoc County School District was in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of government establishment of religions and ordered the daily devotionals on the intercom to be stopped.

During the two-year legal battle, Lisa and her family were subjected to harsh criticism from students, teachers, townspeople and community leaders. They were ridiculed, taunted and belittled.

“My kids and I have been harassed for standing up for our religious freedom,” Herdahl said. “I don’t believe that any students should be forced to choose between going along with some official prayer or having to stand out and be ostracized.”

In response to her public stand on the school prayer issue, Lisa was called an atheist, was forced to quit her job and faced eviction from her home. But through it all, Lisa Herdahl held fast to her beliefs.

Lisa has been unable to find a job since the lawsuit. She is organizing a non-profit to help families assert their rights in dealing with public school systems regarding special education, disciplinary actions and other issues.

Novella Smith-Arnold

Women of Achievement

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

Novella Smith-Arnold

For more than 18 years, Novella Smith-Arnold has been dedicated to a single mission: chaplain for the men and women in the Shelby County jail. In her own words, Novella works with those whom no one else wants: the criminals, crooks and creeps – the disenfranchised and throwaways. But she believes that everyone deserves the love of another, and it is her calling to provide that love.

As director of the Calvary Episcopal Church Criminal Justice Ministry, called “We Care, Inc./Kids Care,” Novella ministers to the forgotten of society.

Many were outraged when in 1989, then-Sheriff Jack Owens declared Novella and her work with Shelby County inmates to be “a security risk,” and she was banned from ministering in the jail. But Novella stood her ground and, backed by a petition from the prisoners and the public support of many, she was able to return to her ministry.

And then a new affliction began sweeping the jail. The outbreak of AIDS was no less tragic among those in jail, and many times much worse. Novella found that prisoners with AIDS were often isolated, harassed and abused. Just as AIDS began to turn into epidemic proportions, Novella was again banned from her work in the jails. Today, she continues to minister to inmates even though she is not allowed in the jail.

Novella now has an even more personal reason to continue her work: Her daughter, adopted at age 13, is now fighting full-blown AIDS at age 32.

God said “feed my sheep” and Novella continues to follow His direction no matter what the odds. Since she began her career in broadcasting, Novella never dreamed she would end up ministering to criminals. But she believes that wherever God calls, we must go.

Novella’s work takes courage, with a generous helping of caring to go among the prisoners, and an ample amount of bravery to face up to the uncaring who would like to send her away.

Novella is outreach ministry chaplain at Calvary Episcopal Church.


Novella Smith-Arnold is currently the prison chaplain at the Shelby County Jail.

Deborah Cunningham

Women of Achievement

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

Deborah Cunningham

In an age filled with people searching for the easy way out, determination can be hard to find. But don’t suggest the easy way out to Deborah Cunningham. And don’t ever tell her to give up.

Afflicted with polio at the age of 6, Deborah refuses to use the disease as an excuse and she tries to help others do the same. As the executive director for the Memphis Center for Independent Living, it’s Deborah’s job to fight for the rights of the disabled, but it is her determination that causes those fights to go way beyond the call of duty.

In 1990, Deborah, a volunteer with ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation), along with other members of the group, began a protest against the Malco theaters. What Deborah’s group wanted was simple: seating in Malco theaters that allows people in wheelchairs to sit with nondisabled companions and still have a good view of the screen. When a letter sent to the president of the company was ignored, Deborah’s determination would not let her back down. She led the group in a 45-minute protest at 7 p.m. on a busy Saturday night. That effort got the group an audience with Malco’s president.

In 1995, Deborah decided it was high time for the Mid-South Fair to make the event more accessible. She helped pushed fair officials to move more quickly on their promised renovations on the event to bring it up to federal standards of accessibility.

Her determination has continued to shine in recent years. After feeling that the main effects of polio were behind her, Deborah discovered a few years ago that she would not be so lucky. She, like many polio victims, was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome. But instead of using this recent affliction as a reason to give up, Deborah used it as another reason to fight. Under Deborah’s direction, the Center for Independent Living started a monthly post-polio patient support group and disseminates current information on the subject.

Whether it is accessibility or other issues of concern to people with disabilities, Deborah is never afraid to speak her mind and never afraid to advocate for what is right. She is not afraid of what others think, and she is determined to make sure the playing field is level for everyone.

Deborah continues to press for accessibility as required by law in local restaurants and other facilities and adequate transportation services from Memphis Area Transportation Authority.


Deborah Cunningham died on May 7, 2015.

Karen Shea

Women of Achievement

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

Karen Shea

It was in 1976 when Karen Shea first tested her own strength. After a divorce left her in need of a way to support her two young children, Karen set her sights on becoming an institutional securities broker. Little did she expect the reaction she got. Women, she was told, are not cut out for such a high-powered job, and they simply do not have what it takes to succeed in the financial arena.

After she got over her shock, Karen took the initiative to prove them wrong. She sold her house in Memphis, packed her bags and headed to Houston. There she got the training and support she needed and built such a strong reputation that those in Memphis who had once overlooked her skills started calling her for advice.

While in Houston, Karen became disillusioned by the corruption in local politics. In 1981, she saw a bright new face on the political horizon and began volunteering in Kathy Whitmire’s first mayoral campaign, helping her win a landslide victory. The following year Karen went on the campaign trail again, this time with Ann Richards who became the first woman elected to a statewide office in Texas in 50 years.

Karen’s most recent – and perhaps most passionate – initiative is her fight against violence among and by young people.

It was three years ago that Karen’s son was shot while trying to help a woman who was being mugged. Karen today still tears up when she talks about the incident. “Every time a child is hurt, it feels like it’s my child. They are all our children and what happens to them affects all our lives.”

After her son’s recovery, Karen served as board chair for the Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. She also assisted with the implementation of conflict-resolution programs in the city schools, and even took a job as a schoolteacher as a way to teach young people that violence doesn’t solve problems.

Karen has now returned to the financial services industry. Women of Achievement was designed to honor ordinary women doing extraordinary things. She is just such a woman.

Karen is a financial planner with Fish & Associates.