Flanked by family and friends, Dr. Michelle Taylor leaves the Shelby County Commission chambers Monday after a unanimous commission vote confirming her appointment as the new Shelby County Health Department director. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

After an apology from a skeptic and a rousing defense by numerous supporters, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously and in bipartisan fashion Monday to confirm Dr. Michelle Taylor as the new director of the health department. 

Taylor’s approval came despite a commissioner releasing an internal administration memo indicating that a panel appointed by Mayor Lee Harris had not recommended Taylor or another candidate for the position. 

A large crowd of Taylor supporters attended the commission meeting, including a number of Taylor’s fellow Delta Sigma Theta alumnae dressed in red. After spirited applause by the crowd died down following the vote count, Taylor said she was honored and privileged to serve as health director. 

“In spite of everything, this week has been one of my greatest lessons and one of my greatest blessings,” Taylor said.

Interim Director La Sonya Hall wrote the memo to Harris detailing the panel’s conclusions, in which they said Taylor was “very articulate” and “highly credentialed.” Still, the panel felt “she was weak on how she plans on changing the health department,” Hall wrote.

It’s not clear who was on the panel. A spokeswoman for Harris did not respond to an emailed, texted and in-person request for the memo and questions about who was on the panel. According to news reports, the memo says it included a “diverse panel of stakeholders,” including “local hospitals, non-profit partners, public health professionals, the private sector, legislative body (sic), public health advisory board and SCHD employees.” 

Before Taylor’s approval, members of the commission’s Black Caucus called the release of the memo politically motivated and said it had “racial undertones.” And ahead of the commission meeting, the NAACP Memphis Branch sent an email asking for support of Taylor’s nomination.

Commissioner Mark Billingsley, who shared the memo last week with the Commercial Appeal and his fellow commissioners, offered an apology to Taylor at the commission meeting Monday.

“I want to personally apologize to you for any heartache you’ve had over the last week or so,” he said, explaining that he’d felt “misled” when what he read in the memo differed from how Harris characterized the panel’s support. He added he supported her as an Air Force veteran, a health care worker, a mother and a leader “willing to step up to a very, very, very difficult job.”

“I’ll be voting to support you and I do it with great pride and honor,” Billingsley said, to audible approval from the audience in the form of loud snapping, since applause is discouraged by the commission.

Black women have that much more to prove, said Commissioner Tami Sawyer, the body’s lone Black woman.

“Hopefully today you’ll be able to look at those people who say you’re unqualified because they don’t see your innate brilliance, your hard work, your ability to lead, because they can’t get past the texture of your hair and the color of your skin and your gender,” she said. “And they’ll be able to say to you, ‘Welcome. Welcome home and thank you for the hard work that you’re about to take on.’”

In a press conference after the meeting, Harris said he was pleased by the bipartisan, unanimous vote, and that he looked forward to cooperation moving forward.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris speaks at a reception for Taylor ahead of the county commission meeting at the Shelby County government building on Monday afternoon. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

“I’ve been in politics for a while now, and elected office for more than 10 years, and politics is all about tomorrow. It’s not about what happened yesterday. So that’s water under the bridge. We’ve all got to work collaboratively tomorrow,” he said.

Taylor has previously worked for the health department on maternal and child health issues. She spent four years as a pediatrician in Memphis, and was a chief of professional services and flight surgeon with the Tennessee National Guard. She recently left Joint Base Andrews, where she was an aerospace medicine division chief in the Office of the Air National Guard Surgeon General.

She graduated from Howard University and has several advanced degrees, including her Doctorate of Medicine from East Tennessee State University, a Master of Science-Epidemiology from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University and a Doctorate of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University.

Taylor replaces Alisa Haushalter, who resigned in February after state officials said the county mismanaged the vaccination program, including vaccinating children (who were not yet approved for vaccination) and wasting thousands of doses. Since then, Hall has served as interim director. 

Taylor will start Aug. 2.

Hannah Grabenstein is a reporter for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at hannah.grabenstein@mlk50.com

Rafael Figueroa, a journalist with La Prensa Latina, translated this story to Spanish.


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