Black Memphis, white Memphis


Black Memphis, white Memphis


Julia Hooks bought a ticket at a downtown Memphis theater. It was 1881 and "Hermann the Magician" was a hit. She was making her way to her seat when two policemen grabbed her. They ripped her dress in the struggle, arresting her as she cried: “Let go of me, I am a schoolteacher!”
Hooks filed a complaint against the officers, but they weren’t punished.

Instead, Julia Hooks was fined $5 for disorderly conduct - particularly ironic, because she was about the least disorderly person in Memphis.

A gifted pianist, Julia’s concerts were the center of Black Memphis social life in the 1880s; Ida B Wells met Mary Church Terrell at one of them.

Julia and her sister Mary were the first Black women to graduate from Berea College in Kentucky, which was integrated until 1904.

I’ll return to Mary Britton, who became a well-known journalist in Louisville and then the first Black woman doctor in KY.

Another sister, Hattie, killed herself after being slut-shamed by Ida B Wells - also a story for another day.

Where was I? Julia. She was eventually known as the Angel of Beale Street for her good works. She started a classical music society, then an integrated music school whose pupils included WC Handy(!), and later an Orphans & Old Folks Home that she funded with her concert earnings.

But when the police were dragging her out of the theater because management had suddenly designated the section for whites only, she called out “I’m a schoolteacher” to demonstrate her respectability in a way that white people might understand.

Paula Giddings explains why teaching was an esteemed profession for women: “In Memphis, a certified teacher not only had to pass a written exam, she also had to demonstrate ‘good moral character’ and ‘the purest and truest of natures’ to the satisfaction of a biracial board.”

During Reconstruction, when Black men voted and held state & local office, Memphis reformers lobbied hard for Black schools & Black teachers. There was only one high school, but it was a good one.

And incredibly, men and women, blacks and whites, were paid equally to teach.

Pay equity in schools owed in part to Memphis’ leading white suffragist, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether. Throughout the 1870s she lobbied tirelessly for equal pay for male and female teachers.

When 3 teachers were fired for “holding too many of Mrs. Meriwether’s views” - the actual reason the superintendent gave for their dismissal! - she led a 7-month fight that ended with them reinstated and a new superintendent installed.

Essentially a lone voice, she demanded the all-male school board be replaced by a gender-balanced group. Equal pay legislation she helped pass was undermined in a closed-door session, but her lobbying had impact.
After teacher salaries were slashed in 1878 due to budget cuts, men and women were paid the same in both the Black and white school systems.

One result was that white men left teaching entirely. Another was that Black women had access to a career.

Meriwether was Memphis’ most visible advocate for women’s equality through the 1870s & 80s.

She demanded fair divorce laws, equal pay, and votes for white women.

In 1876 she rented out a local theater to give her own lecture on women’s rights under the law.

The same year she lobbied the national Democratic convention - remember, they were the party of Southern white conservatism - to include women’s suffrage in their platform.

Meriwether was an active member of the National Woman Suffrage Assoc, even joining Susan B Anthony on a speaking tour.

In 1880 she submitted 2 petitions to the NWSA national convention, one signed by 130 white women and the other by 110 black women, courtesy of her servant.

She sent both petitions with a note describing how the servant, whom she doesn’t name, heard her describing suffrage to guests and after dinner offered to collect signatures from black women. “She took the paper and procured these 110 signatures against the strong opposition...

"...of black men who in some cases threatened to whip their wives if they signed. At length the opposition was so great my servant had not courage to face it. She feared bodily the black men.”

Meriwether doesn’t explain why the white women gathered barely more names.
One more thing about Elizabeth Meriwether:

In 1867 she and her husband Minor hosted a gathering in their home, which they had reestablished after spending the war in exile. Elizabeth followed Minor, a Confederate officer. Their 3rd son (Lee, of course) was born on the road.

Minor survived the war, as did fellow Memphis Confederates Matt Galloway and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Reunited in the Meriwethers' living room, they founded the local chapter of the KKK.

Elizabeth’s contribution was to suggest that their platform include votes for white women. /


Daily Suffragist




Julia Hooks
Black Memphis, white Memphis thread


Daily Suffragist, “Black Memphis, white Memphis,” Daily Suffragist, accessed July 22, 2024,

Output Formats