Jose Guerrero was a grassroots activist who was instrumental in the founding of Latino Memphis, an organization dedicated to the idea that every Latino Memphian should have the opportunity and resources to become an engaged and active participant in making our city great. Guerrero had a vision to break down stereotypes and bridge the gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics. This vision was a catalyst to work with others in the founding of Latino Memphis, then known as Latino Memphis Conexion. Guerrero was a passionate promoter of Hispanic culture including as a radio host of Alma Latino on WEVL and member of Danza Azteca Quetzalcoatl de Memphis. Born in Laredo, Texas, he served in the U.S. Navy and moved to Memphis where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service, while also being an artist, writer and musician. Guerrero’s belief in connection--conexion--as a way to create stronger communities is a lesson in the power of inclusion.
During the yellow fever outbreak in 1878, over 25,000 people, mostly white, fled the city, leaving behind the African American population and the economically disadvantaged to tend to the sick. Others remained because they felt it was their duty to do so. Among them were ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns. Many ordinary citizens also chose to stay and help. At a mass meeting, they organized a citizens’ relief committee which included two white representatives and one African American from each of the city’s ten wards. The Howard Association, which was formed in an earlier epidemic, also sprung into action. Together, with the Catholic priests and sisters of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the founding clergy of St. Agnes Academy, they performed the difficult tasks of fighting the outbreak, including recovering and burying the deceased.
Although a few people took advantage of the crisis, the tragedy united most Memphians—black and white; rich and poor; Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Without the sacrifice of volunteers and those who were forced to stay, the epidemic could have destroyed the city we know and love today.
For additional information on the Yellow Fever Upstanders, see Facing History and Ourselves’ Memphis: Building Community Study Guide.
Nina Katz inspired thousands of students, teachers, and community members through sharing her remarkable reflections as a Holocaust survivor. Born in Sosnowiec, Poland, she was among 800 survivors to be liberated from Oberaltstadt, a slave labor camp, in 1945. Her parents, grandfather, and younger sister were killed at Auschwitz concentration camp. After the war she worked with an organization to reunite families torn apart by the war until she was able to move to Memphis with her husband in 1949. It was in Memphis where she continued her mission to tell her story as a survivor, becoming a voice for tolerance, diversity, and literacy. She helped establish the Memphis Literacy Council, co-founded Diversity Memphis, and was the first female chairman of the board for the Memphis chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. For 40 years, she gave speeches to schools, churches, and communities on her experiences during the Holocaust and never accepted payment. Katz used her story to caution others about what can happen in a society fueled by prejudice and hatred of the “other.” Her dedication to preventing history from repeating itself was essential in helping to establish the Memphis office of Facing History and Ourselves. Nina went on to serve on the Facing History and Ourselves Memphis Advisory Board and was a frequent speaker at the summer seminars for educators.
For more information on Nina Katz, read Out of the Night: The Life and Legacy of Holocaust Survivor Nina Katz.
Thank you to photographer Mick Wright for the image of Nina Katz used in this project.
Reverend Frank McRae was the minister of St. John’s United Methodist Church from 1976 - 1995. He was active in the Civil Rights struggle, building allies between a predominantly white southern church and civil rights advocacy, which was controversial during the time period. During his five decades of preaching social gospel, he inspired the establishment of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, the Church Health Center, Friends for Life, and other faith-based social agencies that transformed urban ministry in Memphis. Reverend McRae transformed his love for humanity into intentional action, even when it was unpopular or uncomfortable.
In his most famous sermon, “The Queen is Dead,” Reverend McRae said we must be willing to give up some of our comforts and make sacrifices for social justice. “We will have to spend more time with strangers than with friends.” His activism was inspired by his faith and influenced his willingness to get proximate with the issues and people for which he was an advocate.
For more information on Reverend Frank McRae, visit Rhodes College Crossroads to Freedom Digital Archive or visit the Reverend Frank Lewis McRae Collection at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center to read the full version of “The Queen is Dead” sermon.
Maxine and Vasco Smith were prominent Memphis civil rights activists during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, Maxine was denied admission to Memphis State University because of her race, inspiring her to join the National Association for the Advancement of Black People (NAACP). She became the Executive Secretary in 1962, serving until her retirement in 1995.
Together, the couple participated in demonstrations and sit-ins to protest against segregation in department stores, resulting in numerous arrests. Maxine led the “If You’re Black, Take It Back” campaign for 18 months in the early 1960s to boycott downtown stores that would not hire black employees and practiced other forms of segregation. In 1961, she helped escort the children chosen to desegregate public schools in Memphis to and from school. She served on the coordinating committee of the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968.
In the early 1960s, Vasco and Maxine created the Program for Progress (POP) to inform Memphians of local politics and civic participation, particularly the disenfranchised African American community, and mobilize the traditionally oppressed voices throughout the city as voters. In 1971, Maxine became the first African American to be elected to the Memphis Board of Education, and in 1973, Vasco was elected to the Shelby County Quorum Court. Vasco was the first black elected county commissioner serving for 20 years. Maxine and Vasco had a strong partnership, supporting each other through 46 years of marriage.
For more information on Maxine and Vasco Smith, please visit the Crossroads to Freedom website. Also, see Sherry Lee Hoppe and Bruce W. Speck’s Maxine Smith’s Unwilling Pupils: Lessons Learned in Memphis’s Civil Rights Classroom.
Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles served as the founder and pastor of Monumental Baptist Church from 1959 to 2014 and was very active in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement. He was on the balcony with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in 1968. Despite witnessing this tragic event, he challenged himself and others to hold on to their dreams. He spoke of hope, not despair. He spoke of progress, not barriers. He spoke of courage, not fear. He built bridges across communities. He asked kids to face how far we have yet to go, but to appreciate how far we have come. He challenged them to keep dreaming. Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles once said that “pioneers are not always around to walk the trails that they blaze.”
For more information on Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, read “Billy Kyles Inspired a New Generation of Dreamers” by Steven Becton.
While the American Civil War brought about the end of slavery, little consideration was given to what rights would be afforded to the four million newly freed people, or how those individuals’ lives and liberties would be protected. This was made painfully clear in the spring of 1866 when a three-day racially motivated massacre broke out in the city. Forty-six African Americans were killed, along with 2 whites; 75 African Americans were injured; and over 100 people were robbed in what is known as the Memphis Massacre. Five black women reported being raped, and 91 homes, 4 churches, and 8 schools for African Americans were burned.
Lucy Tibbs was a survivor of the massacre. She was pregnant with her third child when members of the mob broke into her home, raped her, and then robbed her. She found the courage to publicly testify to what she witnessed and suffered, giving detailed descriptions of her rape while interrogated by the US House Select Committee. Tibbs had to provide her name and address, risking retaliation. Her testimony and that of the other witnesses led to radical reconstruction and the passage of the 14th amendment. Tibbs, along with other women, are often cited as the first victims of sexual assault to testify in public.
For more information on Lucy Tibbs, read A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War by Stephen Ash or read Lucy Tibbs’ testimony documented by the United States House of Representatives in Volumes 223-224 of House Documents.
John T. Fisher II was a community leader and organizer who used his social and financial capital to help unite Memphis after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. His goal was to invest in all Memphians by starting conversations to heal the deep divide between races and organizing a citywide reconciliation service, “Memphis Cares,” to honor Dr. King. People from all over came to pay their respects and hear representatives from all faiths.
He created the Memphis Manpower Commission to connect business leaders with job training facilities and mitigate the disproportionate unemployment rate and subsequent racialized poverty. He went on to serve as the Vice President of the Memphis Chamber's Human Resources Division until 1972, invest in minority business start ups, and create ways to connect the underserved with the privileged.
His work sought to level the ground he knew had always been raised in his favor. Though he faced backlash from some members of the white community, he remained steady in his activism and worked to help others understand that black power was not a threat to white opportunity. John T. Fisher II worked to reconcile a legacy of oppression that benefitted him.
Charl Ormond Williams was a lifelong champion of women’s rights, particularly access to education. She fought against discriminatory hiring practices for women in the school system and became the superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 1914. She made numerous improvements in the curriculum, upgraded the facilities, and introduced physical education, making the school district one of the best in the nation. She became the first southern woman and first rural educator to be elected to the National Education Association in 1921 and worked to ratify the 19th amendment, leading to universal suffrage for women in the United States. She published “Schools for Democracy,” in 1938 which highlighted the critical role of education in promoting democratic ideals and good citizenship. For Williams, those ideals included truly equal education for all, and an end to segregated schools.
Dr. Sheldon B. Korones is responsible for founding one of the oldest and largest national neonatal intensive care units in the United States. In 1968 he opened the Regional Medical Center’s Newborn center to ensure that no infants suffer or die because their families could not afford healthcare. At a time when Memphis had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation—with a disproportionate impact on African Americans and the economically disadvantaged—Dr. Korones’ efforts were critical to the community. He spent hours away from his private practice during the Center’s early years before dedicating himself full-time. Under his leadership, the Regional Medical Center’s intensive care unit staff treated more than 45,000 premature or critically ill babies. His vision saved lives beyond Memphis city lines and across color lines. He installed a portable neonatal intensive care unit in a bus so doctors could travel to small towns outside Memphis and increase the odds of rescuing struggling babies. Dr. Korones was also one of the first area doctors to integrate his private waiting room. At a time when segregation was the norm in nearly all walks of life, he had a vision for a better, more tolerant Memphis. His commitment to life, of all races, ages, and economic capacities, lives on through the work of Newborn Center and the many lives he saved.
Ida B. Wells was an African-American journalist and early civil rights activist. Her activism began when she led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s. She would go on to be a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and remained active in the movement until her death. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Ida B. Wells moved to Memphis in 1883 where she spent her early years as a teacher. She wrote about issues of race and politics in the South, speaking out against the lynching of African Americans, and putting her own life at risk.
Wells set out to shatter harmful myths and improve the African American experience by exposing the truth. She made her voice heard in time, place, and in an atmosphere that was not only hostile to her identity and cause, but tangibly incendiary. She published a number of pamphlets including, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases in 1892 and The Red Record in 1895. In 1892, a mob of white men and boys attacked and murdered three African American men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Harry Stewart, whose only crime was running a successful grocery store. Their murders made her column in the black newspaper, Memphis Free Speech, more relevant, charged, and widely read than ever before. After her newspaper office was burned in retaliation for her columns, Wells left Memphis for her own safety, but she continued her campaign in New York. With the active support of black women’s clubs, African American newspapers, and a few white supporters, she turned lynching into a national issue.
For more information on Ida B. Wells, see Memphis: Building Community Study Guide and Choosing to Participate.
Thomas Oliver "T.O." Jones led 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis in a strike against the city's neglect and abuse of its black employees in February 1968. The strike lasted into April and was resolved in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when all of the demands of the strikers were met.
As a sanitation worker himself, he fought for the right to unionize, eventually starting a union that was unrecognized by the city. He demanded recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage. Wages were so low that even full time workers qualified for food stamps. Working conditions were often dangerous; there were no breaks, and nowhere to eat, change clothes, or use the restroom. Black workers were regularly sent home without pay on rain days, while white workers stayed on the job and got paid.
His activism led to his dismissal in 1963 with the city citing “inefficiency” as the main reason. Jones' initial outrage and leadership inspired his colleagues to organize and take action in the 1968 campaign, which included the famous “I am a Man” signs as a statement of dignity and individual rights, and ultimately led to a better wage and more equal rights for black sanitation workers.
For more information on T.O. Jones and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, visit the National Civil Rights Museum’s exhibit “I Am A Man: Memphis Sanitation Strike 1968,”. See also Facing History’s Memphis: Building Community Study Guide or educator’s guide to Eyes on the Prize.
Rabbi James A. Wax served as Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis from 1954 to 1978 and took an active role in civic and community leadership serving many organizations throughout the city. Rabbi Wax interpreted the history of Judaism, his Jewish identity, and reformed ideology as cause to protect other persecuted groups through community dialogue and peaceful, non-direct action tactics. This included mediation during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike as well as marching alongside the African American Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated to demand the mayor settle the strike. He also was co-chair of the Memphis Ministers Association, an interfaith group that worked to address poverty and racial inequality. This coalition later became the Metropolitan Inter-faith Association of Memphis (MIFA).
For more information on Rabbi James A. Wax, read Memphis: Building Community Study Guide.