The other day, during a family visit to Muskogee, Oklahoma, and thereabouts, I ran across several books about Black Oklahomans, many of them of mixed Native American ancestry; in fact, one person my wife and I encountered wanted to know if she was of Cherokee heritage. While researching the history of her hometown, Taft, which is listed among the all-Black towns in Oklahoma, another arcane piece of information caught my eye. It was an article about a woman named Memphis Tennessee Garrison. That brought to mind the writer Ishmael Reed, whose daughter is named Tennessee.
Thanks to the insightful study of Garrison’s life by Kelli Johnson, I received enough material to fashion at least a brief bio of her remarkable life. She was born Memphis Tennessee Carter in Hollins, Virginia, on March 3, 1890. Her parents, Wesley and Cassie Thomas Carter, were formerly enslaved. Her father worked in the coal fields of West Virginia, where Garrison spent most of her childhood. She was named after the city where her aunt worked as a teacher.
The family moved to Gary, West Virginia, a small town named in honor of Elbert Henry Gary, one of the founders of U.S. Steel. We should note that Memphis’s father was killed after being hit by a train. She was about 7 or 8 years old when it happened. Her mother never remarried, devoting her life afterward to religious study, so much so that eventually she served as president of the Missionary Society. Meanwhile, Memphis pursued elementary schooling in Gary before moving on to Ohio to attend high school.
In 1939, she graduated from Bluefield State College in Bluefield, W.V. A score of years earlier, she had married William Melvin Garrison, who was an electrician at U.S. Steel. “Memphis said that she thought that maybe the bosses did not know or did not care that her husband was Black and that is why he had such autonomy,” Johnson wrote.
They never had any children. They went off to college. William died in 1942. Garrison by then was teaching in McDowell County, W.V., where her main interest focused on students tracked into special education.
Many of the students came to school poorly nourished and thus found it difficult to concentrate on their lessons, so Garrison made sure they were given decent meals from her kitchen before class. Nourishing and nurturing were joined in her classroom as she experimented with various forms of teaching methods.
In 1929, she became the first woman president of the West Virginia State Teachers’ Association (WVSTA). The organization was established in 1891 for African American teachers who were not permitted to join the white teachers’ association. She served in this capacity for a year. By 1954, the WVSTA was dissolved, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision with the intended purpose of eliminating segregated schools.
During her stay in Gary, Garrison also acted as a social worker and a community liaison to mediate the differences on issues. “She helped the Black ministers talk with the mine bosses and with the union organizers,” Johnson noted. “She learned about the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) while in college and started reading the NAACP magazine, The Crisis.”
Given this indoctrination, it was an easy segue for her to assist in establishing branches of the organization in other parts of the state. Subsequently, she served as the national vice president of the NAACP and as a field secretary, helping to raise funds for the organization, particularly during its drives to provide funds for the Christmas Seals Project.
After years of teaching, Johnson said, Garrison “retired to 1701 10th Avenue in Huntington, W.V., where she lived and worked as a substitute teacher for 30 years.” Along with this endeavor, she continued her community activism, most significantly advising the young aspirants and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
On July 25, 1988, Memphis died and her home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.