Memphis Tennessee Garrison spent the majority of her life living in rural Appalachia. After teaching in a one-room school in Gary, West Virginia, she retired to Huntington. She worked to secure resources for schools, supported local civil rights initiatives, and became a vice president of the NAACP. Garrison lived at this home from the 1950s until the 1980s. During those years, she opened her home to many in the community. She also used the home to host numerous meetings where leaders of the African American community came together to discuss their challenges and propose solutions. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2017.
Memphis Tennessee Carter was born in Hollins, Virginia, in March 1890. She was the daughter of slaves. Her family moved to Gary, West Virginia, before her eighth birthday and Carter grew up in the southern West Virginia’s coalfields. Her mother washed laundry, cleaned houses, and watched children and her brother worked in the mines. She attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse. In the evenings, she taught her mother and brother how to read and write. She moved to Ohio to continue her education since there were no high schools in West Virginia that admitted African Americans at the time. She graduated from high school in 1908 and returned to southern West Virginia to work as a teacher. She obtained a BA from Bluefield State College and continued to further her education at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
In 1918, Memphis Tennessee Carter married William Garrison and changed her name to Memphis Tennessee Garrison. They couple never had children.
During a time when women were less likely to display leadership roles, Garrison stepped into the role as a community leader. While living in McDowell County, West Virginia, which happened to have the richest coalfields in the United States and served as the home of U.S. Steel, Garrison arbitrated labor and race issues within the community. During this time, she served as a mediator on her own, not belonging to any organization. From 1931 to 1946, Garrison worked as a mediator and welfare worker for U.S. Steel. She worked to provide recreational opportunities for the local African American community and organized a pool, park, and entertainment. She left the company after the United Mine Workers’ of America organized the U.S. Steel. Once, the miners began to unionize, Garrison’s role in the company changed, almost becoming obsolete. During this same time, she was becoming more committed to the NAACP and efforts that were taking place outside of her hometown of Gary, West Virginia.
Garrison began teaching in 1908 and did not retire until the 1950s. During the Great Depression, she made sure her students were fed. Garrison understood that students could not learn adequately on an empty stomach. She also took education outside the school walls and educated the coalfield community. Garrison brought explorers, plays, and music to Gary exposing the community to different types of culture.
Garrison’s commitment to her students and the young black population is what inspired her to organize. She was able to create an agenda that motivated both men and women, black and white. When the black teachers of West Virginia were organized into the West Virginia State Teachers’ Association, Garrison was the first woman to be elected as the organization's president (1929-1930) and also served as chairman of the board. In 1931, she was elected vice president of the American Teachers' Association.
In 1918, she heard about the NAACP, and by 1921, she had established a branch in Gary. Soon after, she started the Christmas seal fundraiser for the Gary branch. The fundraiser was so successful that it was soon adopted by the national office and became one of the NAACP’s most important fundraisers. She also helped establish branches in other towns in southern West Virginia, assisted in forming the State NAACP Conference, and served as the state treasurer for two years. She often traveled on behalf of the NAACP to solve disputes, establish new branches, and implement membership drives and scholarships. From 1956-1959, she was the NAACP National Field Secretary. Garrison also served as the national vice president of the NAACP Board of Directors from 1964 to 1966.
She was also involved in politics. She supported school desegregation before Brown v. Brown and worked to enforce integration after the Supreme Court case. In addition, she campaigned for voting reform. In 1944, she spoke to the U.S. Senate regarding the abolishment of poll taxes. She served as the Chairperson of the Colored Women’s Division of the Republican Party and was a member of the Woman Advisory Committee for Colored Voters. Between 1963 and 1966, she was a member of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission and, in 1964, was a member of President Johnson’s National Citizens Committee on Community Relations.
In 1952, Garrison moved to Huntington, West Virginia and soon after helped to establish a black Girl Scout group in the city. While in Huntington, she inspired a new generation of black youth. She also worked as a substitute teacher, continued to serve in local, state, and national NAACP positions, and remained active in civic issues.
Memphis Tennessee Garrison died on July 25, 1988 at the age of ninety-eight in Huntington, West Virginia.
Throughout her life, she was honored for the work she did for the black community and civil rights. In 1929, Garrison received the NAACP’s Madam C. J. Walker Gold Medal Award. Her achievements in and services to the civil rights movement were honored in 1959 when she was the recipient of the T. G. Nutter Award. In 1969, she received the Distinguished Service Award from the NAACP. Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia provided Garrison with an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in 1970. She also was given the governor’s “Living the Dream” Award in 1988.