College of Communications and Fine Arts Art Museum of the University of Memphis
Myra Dreifus

From her height of barely four feet ten inches, Myra Dreifus had to stand on a stool to reach the podium, but her message—"You cannot educate a hungry child" —was eloquent and her crusade for funding "Needy School Children" eventually brought school lunches and other crucial programs to Memphis.

Born (1904) Myra Finsterwald, to German-Jewish parents in Detroit, Michigan, she married Fred Dreifus, and they moved to Memphis in the 1930's to start a jewelry business. In Detroit, she had an important volunteer job at the head of a Big Sisters Agency, where she learned to manage volunteer groups. When she moved to Memphis, she continued working as a volunteer, establishing a summer camp for children at Ridgeway Country Club. Realizing that there was no mental health association in the city, she re-established an old agency that had languished for years. Always involved in learning, in the 1930's Dreifus organized a women's group—informally named, with tongue in cheek, "Culture"—to study topics of general interest. Her interest in children and in the arts led her to become chairman of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra's Children's Concerts.

Dreifus led the group that created Riverview Day Care Center and worked with Op-Act to provide supervised after-school activities for inner-city latchkey children. In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she led the Fund for Needy School Children Steering Committee to mobilize the city in the creation of a summer job and scholarship program for teens; months of intense lobbying prompted the City Council and the County Court to fund a $200,000 grant which paid off at least a hundredfold in a quiet summer and effective education programs.

Before her death in 1987, Dreifus received many honors, among them, the Humanitarian Award by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the prestigious Hannah G. Soloman award, and an honorary doctorate from Rhodes (then Southwestern) College, where she served on the President's Council.

Dr. Joan Weatherly

Image courtesy of University of Memphis Libraries, Special Collections.


Ida B. Wells

Francis Wright

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Annie Cook

Alberta Hunter

Suzanne Scruggs

Julia Hooks

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Last Updated: 2/28/13