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Memphis Tennessee Garrison House
Memphis Tennessee Garrison was born in Hollins, Virginia on March 3 or 4, 1890. She was the daughter and granddaughter of slaves. Her family moved to Gary, West Virginia before her eighth birthday and Garrison grew up in southern West Virginia’s coalfields. Her mother washed laundry, cleaned houses, and watched children and her brother worked in the mines. She was able to attend grade school in a one-room school house. 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 B. A. Degree from Bluefield State College located in West Virginia and continued to further her education at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
In 1918 Memphis Tennessee Garrison married William Garrison. They couple never had children, and with the help of her mother and support of her husband, Garrison was able to contribute more to her community and the black population.
During a time when women were less likely to display leadership roles, Garrison acted 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 miners at the coal company. 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, West Virginia, 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, West Virginia. 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 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. Garrison’s greatest legacy was her influence on the young black women of McDowell County to pursue an education.
Throughout her life, she was honored for all 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.
SourcesEwen, Lynda Ann, and Ancella R. Bickley. Memphis Tennessee Garrison the Remarkable Story of a Black Appalachian Woman. Athens: Ohio UP, 2001. Print.
West, Amanda. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. "The Memphis Tennessee Garrison House." July 30, 2016.
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