Juanita Williamson

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Dr. Juanita Williamson

Some are born with a gift for scholarship. Others are born with a gift for teaching. And a few special people are born with a gift for both. Juanita Williamson was one of these. Internationally recognized in linguistics, reading, and education, she is equally remembered for the special talent she brought to the classroom.

Born in 1917 in Mississippi, Juanita Williamson was raised in Memphis in a book-filled home and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. A scholarship recipient, she graduated summa cum laude from LeMoyne College in 1938 and earned an M.A. from Atlanta University in 1948.

As early as fifth grade, Juanita Williamson knew she wanted a Ph.D. When she enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Michigan, one of her professors made it clear that he didn’t believe linguistics was an appropriate pursuit for women. He also implied that he didn’t think much of minorities. Though she felt her work deserved otherwise, he failed her first paper. Determined to never have that happen again, she began to take down every word and memorize her notes. She received her Ph.D. in 1961.

She joined the faculty of LeMoyne-Owen College in 1947 and later became Professor of English and Chair of the Humanities Division. Publications include A Various Language (1971) co-authored with Dr. Virginia Burke and a standard reference in linguistic studies. Her reputation led to serving on the boards of the American Dialect Society, the Modern Language Association and others. She received a Rockefeller Fellowship, was honored by the Ford Foundation and the Black Studies Association. An Amistad Research Grant led to study of Southern and black speech. She presented papers at Princeton, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. She found time for community activities such as the YWCA, Girl Scouts and League of Women Voters.

Juanita’s interest was the structure of language and grammar, her deep concern for the achievement of African-American children and the correlation between their learning performance and their speech. This led her to examine the effect of speech customs of the South on students. She was widely acclaimed for her research. Though she could have gone elsewhere, she chose to stay at LeMoyne-Owen. Committed to the role of historically black colleges she felt she could make a real difference in the lives of her students. According to author Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, academic excellence at LeMoyne-Owen was synonymous with Dr. Juanita Williamson. She was tough, witty, brilliant and humble. And she cared about students in and out of the classroom, providing financial assistance for those who fell on hard times.

She died in 1993, but her greatest gift is still giving – empowering her students who continue to contribute today. They pass on her torch of knowledge and strength of character.

Nancy B. Sorak

Women of Achievement

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

Nancy B. Sorak

When she was a little girl, Nancy sometimes slept in her grandmother’s artist studio in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. The other essential figure in her life, her mother, was deeply involved in the local political scene. This combination, the artist’s creative internal life and the necessarily social life of politics, has defined Nancy’s career. She is known for her sharp intelligence, political toughness, creativity and razor-sharp wit.

Nancy earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Florida in Gainesville and taught briefly in Pensacola. But then she changed her life. She sold her house and everything in it to pay for law school at Florida State. She got a job as a legislative intern, writing legislation for the House Education Committee to pay the bills. With her law degree in hand, she moved to Memphis in 1974 to join her husband, Richard, a pioneer pilot with Federal Express. She looked for work for a year but, as she says, “there weren’t a lot of women lawyers then.” When she was hired as the first female public defender in City Court, newspaper and television covered the moment. A year later, she was chief public defender.

In 1977, she and two previous Women of Achievement honorees, Veronica Coleman-Davis and Karen Williams, formed the first all-female, biracial law firm in Tennessee. Also in 1977, Nancy was a “founding mother” of Network. Isolated in male-dominated workplaces across the city, she got women together “to share the experiences of being women working on equal professional levels with men.” Network was an oasis where stories, contacts and friendship could be shared. It grew to more than 200 members by the mid-1980s, and continues to be a place where professional women gather for support.

Nancy Sorak became the first woman to run for judge, and win, in Memphis history. While two others had been appointed, in 1967 and 1978, Nancy won her judgeship in a tough election, then won re-election four times and served 16 years in City Court Division 3.

In her art, Nancy explores the many aspects of the feminine, often turning traditionally domestic items and symbols into powerful feminist messages. In a rustic Mississippi coast studio, Nancy is pursuing what she calls her “drawn paintings.”

Sometimes with an unseen hand, but always with an unbending commitment to equity and opportunity, Nancy helped pave the way for women in law and politics in Memphis and Shelby County. Nancy Sorak’s vision opened pathways for other women and boosted the dreams and ambitions of many key leaders in our community today.

Sharon Pollard

Women of Achievement

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

Sharon Pollard

Sharon Pollard never meant to become a warrior for workplace rights.

The men around her just went too far.

Sharon went to work for DuPont in the hydrogen peroxide unit in 1977 in Memphis. In 1995, she left her job with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by years of harassment and isolation at the male-dominated plant. In 1997, she sued DuPont. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court heard her sexual harassment case and unanimously cleared the way for larger damage awards to workers who lose their jobs because of illegal discrimination. The story of her battle appeared in newspapers nationwide.

A 1965 graduate of Westside High, Pollard was divorced and raising a daughter alone when she was hired at DuPont as an assistant operator at the company’s tank farm in North Memphis. One male coworker grabbed her rear end; another reached into her overalls. That was the extent of her problems until her promotion to operator in 1987. She moved from working outdoors, where she turned valves on giant tanks, to the control room where crews of six worked each shift monitoring the chemical process. She was the only woman on her shift and trouble with coworkers started immediately. One placed a Bible on her desk open to the passage “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over man.’’ Men she worked with asked if she would like to have sex, cursed her and defaced the bathroom with a drawing of large breasts and graffiti.

As incidents stacked up, Sharon reported some and let others slide. The worst of the harassment started after Sharon spoke to girls visiting DuPont for Take Our Daughters to Work Day in 1994. Others on the shift were instructed not to eat with her, be in the break room with her or talk to her. And the men routinely used foul words for women. She went to management. She asked that the four women in that area work the same shift. Management refused. She asked for medical leave and began to see a psychologist. Determined to reach retirement, in February 1996 Sharon met with managers but the only offer was to go back to the control room. She declined and was fired. At trial in federal court, she listened to DuPont employees lie. But in federal court, she won a judgment for $407,000 in back pay and damages, a judgment affirmed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Sharon went on to the Supreme Court to ask whether federal law limits the amount of damages victims of job discrimination can collect to make up for lost future earnings. The court ruled that she and others deserve more. “Hopefully, the message has been sent by the courts that you are going to have to straighten out the work environment and I feel really good about that,’’ Sharon said. The men who abused her still have their jobs. The main perpetrator never received a reprimand and was never disciplined. There was no further investigation. Sharon continues to work on her emotional recovery.

In October 2003, DuPont was ordered to pay Sharon $2.5 million in punitive damages but the $24 billion multinational company appealed the federal judge’s decision in November 2003.

On June 22, 2005 the Court of Appeals stood by the District Court’s decision to make DuPont pay Pollard $2.5 million in compensatory damages.

Tandy Gilliland and Patricia Merrill

Tandy Gilliland

Patricia Merrill

Women of Achievement

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

Tandy Gilliland and Patricia Merrill

Pat Merrill and Tandy Gilliland were already veteran community leaders when they joined energies 12 years ago to fight for a blufftop trail overlooking the Mississippi River. Through 10 years, two lawsuits, broken promises and compromises, their Chickasaw Bluffs Conservancy fought the mayor, a powerful developer and influential blufftop residents.

Their tenacity paid off in August 1999 with the opening of the $2.42 million, 1.1-mile Mississippi Riverbluff Walkway, from Union to Ashburn-Coppock Park. Tandy has been asked if she would have started the fight if she had known it would last for 10 years. “Maybe not,” she says, “but I’m glad that we did it … It proved one thing to me: that grassroots really can win if you just stay with it long enough.”

Pat, a Cincinnati native who moved to Memphis with her five children in 1967, founded the Sea Isle Neighborhood Association and served as chair of Memphis City Beautiful. She was noted for her support of issues from zoning and flood control to tree preservation and interstate sound barriers. Pat was familiar with the bluff trail and was part of a loosely organized group that became concerned when increasing redevelopment downtown began to close parts of the trail. Tandy was an active elder and outreach organizer at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, and working as executive director of the World Lens Project when she read about developer Henry Turley’s plans to build homes atop the bluff.

Tandy’s father, conservationist, environmentalist and Shelby County official Rudolph Jones, had dreamed of a long trail along the Mississippi River that would include the blufftop. Almost without conscious thought, Tandy telephoned Pat, whom she did not know, to become involved in saving the blufftop.

In February 1990, in Tandy’s breakfast room, the Chickasaw Bluffs Conservancy was formed. Tandy was the first president. An alliance of downtown and East Memphis residents, the group was given its name by founding member and 2001 Woman of Achievement Anne Shafer. The conservancy organized hikes and speakers along the blufftop and lobbied for construction of a trail.

Turley, meanwhile, wanted to back out on a promise to pay for construction of a trail if the city allowed him to develop the blufftop land. He decided to sell the lots as homesites and move the trail behind them. Late in 1992, the city council accepted Turley’s idea of “notching” the walkway into the bluff eight feet below the riverfront homes – and Turley was not required to pay for it. The search for state and federal funding took off and designers worked to make the compromise a safe reality. The City Council in February 1995 approved funding – but Mayor Willie Herenton tried to end the project by refusing to sign the construction contract. Then he proposed an alternative route that would wind the walkway BEHIND two riverfront condominium projects and Turley’s South Bluffs.

Pat, conservancy president starting in 1994, reacted: “I think it’s a complete betrayal of the citizens of Memphis. To me, exchanging a magnificent bluffwalk for a peep show and giving command of the Bluff City’s bluff to a few well-placed individuals is akin to selling our birthright for a mess of pottage.” Said Tandy, “We’re not done yet. We’re going to fight as long as we can.”

Then blufftop homeowners sued to stop construction, fearing the walkway would be easy access to their backyards. Some called the conservancy members pushy and old and one threatened to “get out the garden hose and give them a ride down the hill.” Pat responded. “Because this is the Bluff City, the city should have a bluff and the public should be able to enjoy it. We never had anything against those nice people who live in those houses. We just want them to share the view.”

In 1997, Herenton was defeated in state appeals court by the conservancy, joined by the city council. The homeowners’ suit was dismissed in 1998. Now former opponents praise the walkway for making the blufftop into a neighborhood.

Through their courage and persistence, Patricia Merrill and Tandy Gilliland preserved for generations public access to the Bluff City’s grandest view.

Patricia Merrill passed away on September 8, 2019 at the age of 93.

Tandy Gilliland passed away on November 8, 2020.

JoeAnn Ballard

Women of Achievement

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

JoeAnn Ballard

When JoeAnn Ballard was a little girl in Mississippi, her father read her the biography of Florence Nightingale, a young English woman who, against her family’s wishes, became a nurse to help others. Fascinated by this story, JoeAnn decided that her mission in life was to serve the poor. Decades later she continues to fulfill that mission through her work as executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Centers, which started in 1978 with one small location. The Neighborhood Christian Centers now consist of five local centers plus affiliates in other states. More than 15,000 people are helped each year.

JoeAnn was born in Mississippi into a poverty-stricken family. When she was an infant, she and two siblings were left with their great aunt and uncle, who provided a home filled with love. That home was opened to many foster children, an example that JoeAnn would follow. As JoeAnn grew up, she remained determined to battle poverty; she just wasn’t sure how. During an assembly program in her first year of college, she heard a couple talk about Christ and knew that she had to become a Christian. She applied to Nazarene Bible College in West Virginia. Upon her arrival JoeAnn found that she was the only woman in a large group of men, but was determined to stick it out. Upon graduation she came to Memphis to reopen a church. That fall a child in Sunday school came to her and said she needed a sweater. JoeAnn bought the sweater and began her mission with the poor.

The following year she met and married Monroe Ballard. Over the past 30 years, they have been foster parents to more than 75 children while raising three of their own.

The Neighborhood Christian Centers started with $15,000 from Second Presbyterian Church. At first, JoeAnn was the only employee. Under her leadership, the center became the largest Christian social service agency in the state. “I don’t know who has done more than JoeAnn Ballard for the poorest of the poor,” said Larry Lloyd, president of the Hope Christian Community Foundation. “She is a deeply faithful woman.”

The center’s services include tutoring, college assistance, adult education, job training, legal and financial counseling, clothing closets and food distribution. JoeAnn tries to make sure everyone who comes in contact with the ministry is served one at a time, accomplished only with the faithful help of 40 paid staff and many volunteers. The center’s budget is funded through churches, foundations and individuals. There is no government assistance. JoeAnn says, “Our aim is not to eradicate poverty. Our aim is to help people who are poor and to spread the gospel.” How has JoeAnn made such an impact? She says, “We try to feel a person’s pain and meet that person’s need.”

JoeAnn Ballard’s determination rescues children and families from the damaging cycle of poverty. JoeAnn Ballard’s determination saves lives.


JoeAnn Ballard’s daughter Ephie took control over the Neighborhood Christian Centers in 2008.

Joyce Cobb

Women of Achievement

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

Joyce Cobb

Joyce Cobb is one of the best known and most-loved of performing Memphis musicians. She is an essential part of our musical fabric, contributing blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, folk and just plain good music to our community. Her name brings to mind a big smile, huge voice, quality in musicianship and depth in delivery. She’s carved out her place in the music profession as a performer, teacher and donator of her talent.

Joyce first performed in her grandmother’s church in Okmulgee, Oklahoma – and she never forgot the warm response she received from the audience. She grew up listening to her parents’ excellent collection of jazz and classical music. But it was in her high school’s girls’ choir that she got her real start. Director Sister Mary de Lassis uncovered in Joyce a passion for singing that continues today.

In Nashville, Joyce worked for WSM radio and TV for six years and opened at the Opry. She came to Memphis in 1976, lured by a contract with a Stax Records subsidiary but Stax folded shortly after her arrival. She worked for a month at the Holiday Inn and there met Wayne Crook and Warren Wagner. In talking with them she realized that her dream included songwriting, so she signed with their company, Shoe Productions. Her first song, “Dig the Gold,” was about the poorly paid black gold miners of South Africa. The song earned a number 42 spot in Billboard magazine.

Joyce has run her own Beale Street jazz club and has toured nationally. She has won four Premier Player Awards for Best Female Singer from the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She has recorded on several labels including RCA and Cream Records. In 1997 she hosted Beale Street Caravan, a nationally syndicated radio program highlighting the music of the Delta. She received Memphis Arts Council funding for the dynamic live program Beale Street Saturday Night, focusing on Memphis music. She has taught at the University of Memphis and the Community Music School.

Joyce has volunteered with WEVL radio for more than 20 years. She has served on the program committee, currently serves on the board and hosts several shows. All this time, she’s been writing songs, sometimes spending as much as 12-15 hours a day in the studio. She now has 30 to 40 songs to her credit.

Her biggest challenge has been to continue writing and performing her own material, but she has begun producing a CD on which she sings her own songs. Throughout her career, Joyce Cobb has shown initiative in music, business and education.