Lil Hardin Armstrong and Alberta Hunter

Lil Hardin Armstrong
Alberta Hunter

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Lil Hardin Armstrong and Alberta Hunter

The Heritage Award this year is being given to two Memphis women who became renowned in the world of popular music: jazz legend Lillian (known as Lil) Hardin Armstrong and Blues icon Alberta Hunter.

As a jazz pianist, singer, composer, and bandleader, Lil Hardin Armstrong became the leading woman in early jazz, and an outstanding pioneer in a field dominated by men.

Alberta Hunter, nationally and internationally known as a Blues singer and songwriter during her lifetime, was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011.

Both were born in the 1890’s and grew up in Memphis in the early 20th century. But while Lil Hardin studied piano at Mrs. (Julia) Hook’s School of Music and spent a year at Fisk University, Alberta Hunter learned music at church and on the streets, and left high school without graduating. Both felt pulled to Chicago, Alberta in 1911, Lil in 1918, where a vibrant African-American musical culture was being shaped. Both struggled to begin their careers in the cabarets and nightclubs springing up there—Lil Hardin Armstrong as a jazz pianist and Alberta Hunter as a Blues singer. By the 1920’s Lil Hardin was a pianist with the well-known King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, playing the Dreamland, the premiere Chicago club for African-Americans. There she met and married a trumpeter in the band named Louis Armstrong. Though they would later divorce, she kept his last name.

Also by the 1920’s, Alberta Hunter was a top singer in the Chicago clubs and cabarets, including the Dreamland, where she and Lil Hardin met and became friends. That decade Alberta added recording to her career, becoming a sought after recording artist, and began writing songs for herself and others. One of the first was “Down Hearted Blues,” which became Bessie Smith’s first smash recording in 1923. She branched out to other places, playing clubs and doing musical theater in New York, Paris, and London, becoming a national and international star.

Lil Hardin Armstrong was also recording by the 1920’s. As a pianist she was sought after for recording sessions, and she recorded from 1925-1927 as the pianist on Louis Armstrong’s classic “Hot Five” Okeh Records recordings, a celebrated series of records in jazz. She also composed some of the Hot Five’s best-known songs, including “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” She branched out and became the leader of her first band, the Lil Hardin Armstrong Band. She would create at least eight bands throughout her career, one of them an all-women band.

By the 1930’s, both women were broadcasting nationally on the radio, as well as playing clubs and recording. Lil Hardin recorded for Decca Records as a swing vocalist and band leader, and accompanied many singers on the piano, including Alberta Hunter. Hunter was at the height of her fame, a celebrated international star. Hardin Armstrong was the most prominent woman in jazz.
In the 1940’s, Alberta Hunter toured with the USO, singing for the troops in North Africa and Europe, while Lil Hardin Armstrong and her band continued to play in Chicago. Recording contracts and opportunities dried up and both women looked to other careers. Lil Hardin Armstrong trained as a tailor but ultimately kept creating clothes only as a sideline for friends. She briefly owned a restaurant and taught piano and French. She never gave up music, performing both as a soloist and accompanist. A version of her song “Just for a Thrill,” became a major hit for Ray Charles, while Peggy Lee and other top singers recorded her songs. In 1971, she collapsed and died while playing on an NBC-TV tribute show for Louis Armstrong.

After the war, Alberta Hunter started volunteering at the Joint Diseases Hospital in Harlem. Her experiences there and her mother’s death in 1954 acted as the catalysts for her to begin a career in nursing. She got her high school GED, went to nursing school, and had a 20-year nursing career at New York’s Goldwater Hospital. But she never totally gave up the Blues. After retirement, at over 80 years old, she began singing at clubs in limited engagements, becoming a national figure again. The Tennessee governor in 1978 declared an “Alberta Hunter Day,” and the Memphis Mayor presented her with a key to the city. Speaking at the Orpheum in response, she shocked the audience as she openly spoke out against the racism she faced growing up in Memphis and that still existed in the 1970’s. She continued in the Blues until her death in 1984.

Both Lil Hardin Armstrong and Alberta Hunter were outstanding women. Both pioneered public musical careers for women and left a rich legacy of musical contributions in jazz and the Blues to the world. They richly deserve to be named Memphis Women of Achievement and honored with the Heritage Award for 2016.

Claudia Haltom


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

Claudia Haltom

Claudia Haltom grew up in rural East Tennessee where she witnessed the effects of poverty on local families. After graduating from UT-Knoxville, she studied law, following in the footsteps of her mother, Claude Swafford, and father, Howard Swafford. After clerking for a state court judge, Claudia joined the Shelby County Attorney’s Office. There, she handled cases for the county health department and the county schools. She gained insight into the devastating effects of poverty on children and teens, and she saw first-hand the limited reproductive health services available to poor women. She published “The Single Parent Referee Handbook” to assist women who find themselves raising children alone. The book provides practical legal and personal advice.

After 12 years in the Health Department, Claudia became a Magistrate in the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court. Here, too, she saw the impact that unintended pregnancies had on women of limited means. Often the pregnant girls she saw in court were “on the pill,” but taking it faithfully every day was just not happening. With considerable family support, a teen might finish school with one baby. But with two or three, her chances were almost zero, and the unsafe living conditions produced by these circumstances sometimes required Haltom to remove children from their mothers. In addition, she often had to send young men to jail for failure to pay child support.

Young women’s lives, the babies’ lives, and those of their extended families were all impacted by unplanned pregnancies. These women did not have the choices that come with being able to plan for their futures.

Claudia was determined to do something to interrupt this cycle of “children having children.”

Retiring after 17 years in the juvenile court system, she founded A Step Ahead Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to provide safe, long-term, reversible contraceptives to women without the means to afford them. She sought private and corporate financing. Knowing full well the political, religious, and ethnic mine-field that has characterized discussions of birth control, Claudia consulted with medical professionals, clinic directors, and community activists. She built partnerships with multiple agencies including home nursing programs, the Shelby County Health Department, Porter Leath, the Exchange Club, and more.

A Step Ahead’s philosophy is, “Being abstinent is the best method (of birth control), unless you are not. Then we are here to help.” When she and the educators at the Foundation talk with young women, they advise them to “Plan your career, choose a father for your children who deserves you, and then plan your babies.” The Foundation’s staff and volunteers work through schools, neighborhood groups, word of mouth, and social media.

Claudia’s determination to meet known obstacles clearly paved the way for A Step Ahead’s success. Today the Foundation leases office space on the campus of the Junior League of Memphis at the corner of Central and Highland and maintains a call center 24/7. The Foundation partners with 16 community clinics that provide the long-term birth-control devices and services to women.

In addition, A Step Ahead Foundation now has affiliates in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, and Jackson-West Tennessee. Thousands of sexually active girls and women have learned to take charge of their reproductive lives and to plan their futures accordingly so that they remain — a step ahead.

This is one determined woman! Claudia Haltom, chief executive officer of A Step Ahead Foundation, is the 2016 Woman of Achievement for Determination.


On January 16, 2018, the Association for Women Attorneys (AWA) Memphis Chapter honored Claudia Haltom, CEO of A Step Ahead, with the Marion Griffin-Frances Loring Award for outstanding achievement in the legal profession.

Bennetta Nelson West


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

Bennetta Nelson West

In 1982, Bennetta Nelson West used her education in business management, her long-standing interest and participation in the arts, and her passion and understanding of the local African American art community to found the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, the city’s first regional arts and cultural organization which celebrates and nurtures artistic excellence and black heritage.

Born in the John Gaston Colored Wing Hospital in the 1940s, the only child of parents she describes as teachers, philosophers and entrepreneurs, Bennetta Nelson West knows a thing or two about racism and sexism. As a Girl Scout, Bennie, as she is known, and the rest of her troop were only able to enter through the front door of Girl Scout Headquarters, then located on Union Avenue, because the troop leader Mrs. Arvon Thigpen could pass for white. After graduation from mighty Melrose, she attended Tuskegee Institute. She wanted to own a hotel and restaurant but was told by a professor, “nobody’s going to let a colored woman do that. You should become a dietitian, work in a hospital and marry a doctor.” So she wasn’t admitted to that program her first year.

Determined to get in and against her mother’s wishes but with her father’s support, she came home and started as a “salad girl” at the old Chisca Plaza Hotel Restaurant downtown and ended up as its first Black waitress. With a letter from the Chisca’s owner, she was finally admitted to the program of her choice and graduated with a degree in Institutional Management & Foods & Nutrition. In her first professional job as a dietitian at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, she was only allowed to work with black patients.

She married and moved to California. Her husband didn’t want her to work. According to Bennie, he only wanted a “trophy wife,” but that didn’t stop her. She got a job anyway, in the Food Services Department of Disneyland. After orientation she was assigned a Mammy outfit to wear in a New Orleans style restaurant. Anyone who knows Bennie won’t be surprised at what happened next. She quit.

Unhappy in marriage and not satisfied with her career, she got a National Institutes of Health Fellowship and moved to New York City to attend Columbia University to pursue a Master’s Degree. She stayed a decade.
There, between 1968 and 1978, Bennie became active in the black arts movement. She studied and participated in the theatre, dance, and visual arts industry, settling on a part-time career as a potter. Seeking to merge her arts and business interests, she received additional training in Arts Management from the New School of Social Research in New York City and the Arts Management in Community Institute through the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts.

Upon return to Memphis in 1978, Bennie joined the Continuing Education Department of what was then Shelby State Community College. While there she organized the First National African American Crafts Conference & Jubilee. This conference became a precursor to the National Black Arts Festival.

In 1982, while continuing as a college administrator and with the support of fellow faculty members Yvonne Robinson Jones, Patty Lechman, and 2005 Woman of Achievement for Initiative Mahaffey White, Bennie organized artists and arts groups to found the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, Inc.

Her biggest challenges included resistance from major arts funders and other emerging arts groups, disputes between artistic egos and struggles across disciplines. As is the case with many women, balancing family and work was also an issue.

Since its beginning, the Memphis Black Arts Alliance has created a venue for the development and showcasing of local and nationally recognized black artists. MBAA has employed more than 300 local artists and provided over 3,000 youth, families and adults the opportunity to learn, master and showcase the rudiments of the arts with well-trained, dedicated and culturally inspired artists.

This year Memphis Black Arts Alliance, Inc. is entering its 34th year. And Bennetta Nelson West has just recently retired and passed the baton. Under new leadership, MBBA continues to grow and thrive, a very significant achievement in the life of an organization founded on one individual’s dream and drive.

For this, we applaud and honor Bennetta Nelson West for her initiative.

Dorothy Orgill Kirsch


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Dorothy Orgill Kirsch

Dorothy Orgill Kirsch has a simple rule about her wide-ranging volunteer work: it should be fun.

In more than 60 years of community service, Dorothy has become a model for how to fully engage in support of arts, animals, education, environment and youth to make our city better.

Docent, board member, patron, advocate – Dorothy puts her heart and her self where her money is. She could be found at the Memphis Zoo teaching school kids in the Reptile House, financing talented newcomers with Ballet Memphis or sponsoring shows at Playhouse on the Square while leading applause from the audience.

Caring, genuine, funny, energetic, loving, merry – Dorothy regularly brings groups of her close female friends to theater and ballet performances, arts fundraisers and other activities.

“You live in a place, you want it to be the best it can be,’ Dorothy says. “You can’t just sit and hope it will be the best it can be.”

Dorothy was born and raised in the city where she married and was widowed twice, raised two children and curries a bevy of friends and admirers. Kirsch’s father, Kenneth W. Orgill, was secretary in the family business, which opened in Memphis in 1847 and is still Memphis’ oldest running business.

As a girl, Dorothy remembers “knitting thingamajigs” for World War II soldiers and volunteered at Calvary Episcopal Church and as a member of a high school sorority during her term at the Hutchison School. She majored in political science and minored in economics at Randolph Macon Women’s College in Virginia.

Back in Memphis in 1955 after graduation, her second cousin Edmund Orgill (Memphis mayor 1956-1959) helped her get a job at what was then Southwestern at Memphis. She laughs now about being paid “$75 every two weeks or something” for helping the woman who produced an alumni newsletter and items about students for area newspapers.

She soon met Thomas White, resigned her job the spring of 1956 and got married. But, shortly, the first in a series of tragedies struck. Her only sibling, Kenneth Orgill Jr., 33, who had been under psychiatric care for more than a year, had lunch with his parents, then drove downtown and jumped from the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge. It was the afternoon of Jan. 31, 1960.

At about 8 p.m. 11 days later, his wife, Nancy Wilson Orgill, asked Dorothy and Tom White to babysit her young children. Later that night a 1955 Oldsmobile registered to Kenneth Orgill was found still running on the bridge. Nancy Orgill, 31, was missing. Her body was found in the Mississippi River near Scott, Miss in April; his was not recovered.

Kenneth W. Orgill III, 5, and Elizabeth Orgill, 3, came to live with the Whites.
Eight years later, Tom White was killed when the Piedmont airliner he was aboard collided with a small plane over North Carolina. He was 37.

Dorothy was in her 30s, widowed, a single mother of two children in the near-perfect world of Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed. Her parents helped her with the children until in 1972, she married William F. Kirsch Jr., a Harvard- and Yale-trained attorney, bachelor and friend of her brother. He had helped organize the Memphis Arts Council in 1961. He was president of the Memphis Opera and Memphis symphony boards and a generous supporter of the art museums, ballet, colleges, Theatre Memphis and Humane Society
Dorothy was active with the Junior League, Les Passees, Calvary and the mental health board. One day in December, Bill phoned her and asked was there anything they might send extra money to and she said, “The zoo. I’ve always loved animals.”

That launched a critical partnership between the Kirsches and the zoo. Bill Kirsch was zoo board president in 1987 and Dorothy joined the board and was the first board member to do weekly training classes to become a docent. Bill Kirsch died in 1989 after a brief illness. Dorothy’s “infectious enthusiasm” has continued to nourish the zoo and a long list of arts, schools and more.

“I’m lucky enough to do the things I love,” she says. We – and her FIVE rescued dogs – are all lucky to live where Dorothy Kirsch steadfastly shares her time, energy and resources to make our community stronger. Dorothy Orgill Kirsch is our 2016 Woman of Achievement for Steadfastness.

Linda Sessoms


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

Linda Sessoms

Following a long career educating young children and raising her own three, Linda Sessoms wanted to do something significant with her life. Eager to stay healthy, she reignited her own long-time interest in running. In 2006, she recruited several like-minded enthusiasts and they were off!

The group became Sisters in Motion. Their mission: To encourage and support adult African American women of all ages to become physically active through regular exercise in a supportive and non-threatening environment.

The group size varies from year to year, ranging from 100 to over 200 participants. Before joining, members must have doctor’s approval and attend orientation. Linda provides a daily run schedule, weekly run routes with mileages and schedules and an annual major race for the group. On Saturday mornings, the group runs together in locations all over the Memphis area. One Saturday, it might be downtown on the river; another Saturday it could be Shelby Farms, but rain or shine, coldest winter or hottest days of summer, they run. They also participate in marathons, including St. Jude and one year in Jamaica.

The group initially grew by word of mouth. It now includes women from all walks of life; women who would otherwise have never met. Women in their 30s through their 60s participate. The group takes in new members every April and this year has women in their 70s waiting to join. Women come to the group in varying degrees of fitness and weight. Some run, some walk, but all are committed to staying in motion.

With obesity and diabetes on the rise, the importance of this group is enormous.

Women in Motion promotes a healthy lifestyle. In addition to exercise, the group provides information and schedules speakers on health-related topics such as nutrition. Concerned about mothers and children, the group has raised over $100,000 for Christ Community Health Center to go towards reducing the high infant mortality rate in Memphis.

Some women come for fellowship and fun; others come with specific goals, such as weight loss or preventing diabetes. Linda’s biggest challenge? Encouraging women to literally just get off the couch and want to do this. Linda says, “Women get a bad rap; women can come together and work hard and not be catty. We can be happy when something good happens and be supportive when support is needed.”

Linda’s vision is for women to be consistent, stay on the course, and believe that you can do whatever you set out to do. Whatever obstacle comes your way, push through it. Don’t worry what others are doing; just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. And whatever you are doing, try to do it better.

In April, thanks to Linda’s vision and steady leadership, Sisters in Motion celebrates its tenth anniversary.

Leah Walton


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

Leah Walton

At birth, she was given the name Dylan, a name befitting the handsome little boy she was. Today she is Leah.

Dylan always felt different. As a child she dressed up in her mother’s lipstick and sang along with Britney Spears. As a young teen she came out as gay, but something still felt off. She felt uncomfortable in her own skin. And then one night, she stumbled upon a video of a beautiful transgender woman and it hit her like a bolt of lightning. “I’m a trans woman.”

In 2013, Dylan was a senior at South Panola High School in Mississippi, a school best known for its powerhouse football team, and she looked like your average teen boy— wearing hoodies and baggy pants. But outside of school, Dylan had changed her name to Leah and her pronouns from “he” to “she.” She was ready to be fully “out.” She began to make plans to attend the prom as a girl.

Mississippi is a state with no laws protecting the trans community. In fact, a law was passed in Mississippi shortly after Leah’s graduation called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It protects religious people from legal repercussions if they verbally condemn the lifestyles of LGBT persons. Additionally, under this law, businesses can refuse services to LGBT persons. Abusers and bigots are protected, but in Mississippi LGBT persons can be evicted or fired just for being LGBT. With knowledge of these laws you might say it is foolish, even illogical to come out as a proud trans woman, but Leah could not bear to live a lie. She could not bear going to school dressed as a boy now that she had discovered her true self.

Over winter break of her senior year Leah wrote to her school and explained that she was transgender. She asked permission to finish out the year as her true identity—dressing as, and being addressed as, a woman. The school wrote back to say they had never heard the term “transgender” and that school policy stated she had to dress in the style befitting her sex.
“I was distraught” Leah said. “I had six months of school left… I just wanted to be the real me.”

Kim Hood, Leah’s mother, found much at fault with the school’s response. She contacted The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and insisted they come to her daughter’s defense. The ACLU began to work with Leah’s school to ensure a smooth transition in the early stages of Leah’s gender transformation.

Quickly, local news outlets in Mississippi picked up the story, then it spread into Shelby County, Tennessee. “Male high school student in Batesville, Mississippi, will finish year dressed as a girl,” was the title of a story about Leah in The Commercial Appeal. Then it became international news. British publications The Guardian and The Daily Mail picked it up, among others. Leah did several interviews. A Facebook page called “Mississippians Support Leah” got more than 1,500 “likes” in less than 24 hours after being created. Supporters from all over the world wrote notes of support to the young, brave girl in Mississippi.

Leah was careful to dress nicely for her first day attending school as a woman. She was interviewed by WMC-TV, a local Memphis news program, and discussed planning her outfit. Leah proudly reported, “I wore jeans and a cute top and I wore high heels.”

But there was backlash. Leah was greeted at the school gates by a group of religious protestors — fellow students and parents wearing t-shirts that read, “You’re going to hell” and, “abomination.” They hurled insults at her and refused to use gender pronouns. They called Leah “it.” Leah was frightened and upset. She stayed away from school for several days.

When she returned to school she dealt with a new set of bullies. Girls stared at her as she walked down the hall. Girls laughed at her and took pictures of her with their phones. Classmates whispered and stared. “But the bullies never had the courage to say anything to my face,” Leah said, “and my friends were all there for me.” And then, slowly, other students began to approach Leah. They congratulated her. They told her she was brave to face the protesters as her true self.

Eventually, things got back to normal. No more protests. No more news reports. People got used to the new Leah and she went about living her life. Leah now lives and works in Oxford, Mississippi. After taking some time to care for herself, she now has great hopes of getting back into the advocacy arena and working to help and support others who are experiencing the same abuse and fear that she once faced. Leah will tell you this experience in high school feels like a lifetime ago, but she continues to be a remembered and visible trans figure in the community. She is surely a ray of hope for other trans people in Mississippi.

During the heavy coverage of her transition, a letter to the editor was printed in The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. The author, Anne Brownlee Gullick, chair of the Tennessee Equality Project Shelby County Committee, wrote of her proud support of Leah. She wrote, “Leah’s courage and strength exhibited in her public transitioning while still in high school in Mississippi is something to be honored and nurtured… When this chapter in Mississippi LGBT history is written, Leah’s very real, very human story will be remembered for making it easier for the next generation of LGBT young people to tell theirs.”

Ashley Coffield


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

Ashley Coffield

On a list of taboo subjects in our community, the right of a woman to make her own reproductive choices would be near the top. In this conservative part of the country, that’s a conversation that most people would rather avoid, yet in her role as President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, Ashley Coffield stands up and speaks out daily.

As columnist Gail Collins said in The New York Times this fall, “Being at the helm of Planned Parenthood in the current climate is more like steering a boat carrying unstable explosives…while surrounded on both sides by enemy pirates throwing burning torches.”

But Ashley Coffield is up to the challenge. A fearless leader, passionate advocate and champion for women’s health, she joined Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region at a watershed moment and has led PPGMR through many transitions. She has overseen the expansion of advocacy efforts to empower patients, led staff and hundreds of volunteers throughout Tennessee during the Vote No on Amendment One campaign in the fall of 2014 and led the battle against new anti-abortion laws in Tennessee in 2015.
Born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Ashley came to the “big city” to attend Rhodes College. As a student with no insurance, she was a patient of Planned Parenthood. She was so impressed with the organization’s compassionate and confidential care that she became a volunteer health educator. That sparked an interest and set her on the path of a 20-year career in public health that has included time in Washington, DC, at the Public Health Foundation and later leading the advocacy group Partnerships for Prevention for 12 years, three as executive director.

When she and her husband decided to return to Memphis to start their family, she telecommuted to her job in Washington but joined Planned Parenthood as a board member for 9 years, serving 2 as board chair. She left the board for a couple of years but was asked to serve on the Search Committee for a new Executive Director. This led her to apply for the job with an organization she reveres.

Founded in 1938, as a result of women’s kitchen table talks, the Memphis Planned Parenthood provides high-quality, affordable reproductive services and education to women and men throughout the Mid-South, regardless of their ability to pay. This year PPGMR celebrates its 75th anniversary.
Ashley became President and CEO on April 1, 2013. It has been a momentous three years.

Asked if she worries about the daily protesters outside the clinic, she said, “They don’t worry me…though there have been some dark days……It’s the politicians in office who want to remove the rights for which we’ve fought.”
Ashley says that the courage required for this job is not in facing the protesters or the threats but the courage needed to talk about abortion; to work to remove the stigma around discussing unplanned pregnancy.

She fights for women who have no voice, especially poor women who struggle to get family planning services through Obamacare or Medicaid Insurance.
She credits the debate over Amendment One for opening the public conversation in Tennessee. She sees a huge difference in Tennessee women’s willingness to speak out since that battle over the state constitution and women’s rights. The silent majority was activated – and Ashley and PPGMR led that fight. She worked literally day and night for weeks on end in the finally-unsuccessful effort to defeat the amendment and is vigilant now in efforts to block new laws it made possible that can further restrict or end a woman’s right to full reproductive healthcare in Tennessee.

Ashley feels strongly that people should live the lives they want to lead, not based on what someone else wants them to do – whether a partner, spouse, parents or government. She works to provide a safe place for women and men to make their own important decisions free of judgment or coercion. That’s what motivates her to have the courage to get up every day and keep fighting to keep the doors open and choices available.

Ashley Coffield is the 2016 Woman of Achievement for Courage.