Memphis Local Treasure: Miriam Decosta-Willis Passes at 86

By Jon W. Sparks

 Editor’s Note: Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, a trailblazing activist, distinguished academic, and prolific author, died Thursday, January 7, at her home at age 86. Last month, the University of Memphis honored her with a historical marker celebrating the fact that she was the first Black professor at the school. It was an especially rich recognition considering that in 1957 when she applied to attend then-Memphis State University, she was denied admission because of her race. This story originally appeared in our October 2019 issue, when we featured her, very appropriately, as a “Local Treasure.”

She is the very picture of grace and elegance, welcoming a visitor to her beautiful home, the walls and shelves of which hold dozens of artworks from African masks to a recent George Hunt acquisition. There are books galore. Miriam Delores DeCosta-Willis brings her guest a cold ginger tea blend that is the perfect counterbalance to a punishingly hot day.

If you’d never met her before, you could be forgiven if you did not see in her the fighter, the rebel, the warrior for change. She began to forge those identities some 81 years ago when she was a 3-year-old growing up in Charleston, South Carolina. A little white girl shouted at her, “What are you?” To which she replied, with pride, “I’m an American!” The girl said, “No you’re not. You’re a colored.”

At that age, she wasn’t offended, but she was puzzled, not knowing quite what that meant, so she asked her mother, who told her more by the tone of voice than anything that such a judgment was disrespectful. It was the beginning of an education and a mission that would thrust DeCosta-Willis into the civil rights struggle and take her into a long career in academia.

Today, she says, there is a memoir in the works, and she is immersing herself into it as she has her many other published works, from Erotique Noire/Black Erotica to Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers.

“The memoir has made me reflect back on my life,” she says, “And I see it divided into two parts. There’s my civil rights activism, which in a large sense came from my mother, and the second part where I’m shifting my gears. I haven’t decided what to call my second period, although I like armchair revolutionary.”

“I kept on being rebellious, but my activism took the form of my books because I was very influenced by other liberation movements in the 1970s, particularly the feminist rebellion and the gay rebellion. I protested in front of the White House and participated in the gay rights movement. I also remember demonstrating in Washington, in the Latino parade, chanting, “¡Sí Se Puede!’” (Yes we can). — Miriam DeCosta-Willis

DeCosta-Willis was a natural student. She got her bachelor’s degree at Wellesley College and an M.A. and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. In between, there were, to say the least, adventures.

Her junior year at Wellesley, she married attorney Russell B. Sugarmon, who had graduated from Rutgers and gotten his law degree from Harvard. He came from a well-established family in Memphis and the young couple started their own family. Sugarmon would go on to be involved in Memphis politics and had been a judge for many years before his death last February.

Miriam DeCosta-Sugarmon blazed trails in college. She was one of the very few black students at the all-female Wellesley, one of very few black women at Hopkins, became the first African-American to graduate with a Ph.D. from Hopkins (earning that degree in only one year) and, in 1965, was the first Black faculty member at Memphis State University. That last achievement was particularly satisfying since MSU had rejected her application for graduate school in the late 1950s. She was highly qualified, but she was black.

When she came to Memphis after Wellesley with her husband and children, she was already primed to get involved in the civil rights struggle. As a child in Montgomery, Alabama, where she had come with her family from Philadelphia, she was baffled at having to sit at the back of the bus.

“From that moment, I determined not to ride the bus,” she says. And just before graduating from college, visiting her parents in Montgomery, she witnessed her mother standing up to the police. The occasion was the 1956 bombing of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s house.

The police had secured the scene and Dr. King was on his way and had not yet arrived. “A policeman said, ‘Get back, all of you people!’ And my mother just stood there, determined. I still have this image of my tiny mother facing this burly policeman with his billy club and pistols. Others in the crowd, including me, moved back. She would not.”

Soon after, DeCosta-Sugarmon would move to Memphis, where her husband wanted to be. He was one of several influential African Americans who came back to the city at that time, just a few years after the powerful Boss E.H. Crump had died and left the city’s political establishment up for grabs.

She credits Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter Clark Porteous with calling the returning African Americans the “young Turks.” They included Maxine and Vasco Smith, H.T. Lockard, and Jesse Turner. “All of these people were determined to change things in Memphis,” she says. “And that was exhilarating.”

At age 84, DeCosta-Willis declares, “I’m getting older but I’m not getting old. I can’t live any other way.”

With all of her achievements and milestones in her life, the indisputably best of them all is her family. “I have my four kids, my eight grandkids, and my five great-grands. They come first.” Her offspring have acquired the taste for public service. Her son, Tarik Sugarmon, is a municipal judge, and her daughter, Erika Sugarmon, is running for city council.

The family was naturally part of her life as an academic and an activist. She was interested in feminist theory and felt it important to be able to say she studied and taught at school, participated in civil rights actions, and raised her children.

She was on the NAACP’s Education Committee and led a move to boycott Memphis City Schools to achieve equality on the school board. She was arrested and she and her children were maced during civil rights activities in the 1960s. She marched and demonstrated when Dr. King was in town to support the striking sanitation workers. When she was teaching at Memphis State, she was an advisor to the Black Students Association and organized a sit-in of the president’s office.

She fought for change even as her life was changing. In 1966, DeCosta-Sugarmon divorced her husband. They were a highly visible and accomplished couple and the split was much discussed in the community, although it certainly wasn’t the end of anything for either. She was becoming more and more involved in academia. She went to teach at Howard University in Washington in 1970 and figured she’d left Memphis for good. But in 1972, she married A.W. Willis Jr., who, like Sugarmon, was an activist lawyer involved in local politics and civil rights. She was, again, a member of a Memphis power couple.

“It was my second husband who really started me on this journey because he was working on a project related to Beale Street,” she says. She was now known as Miriam DeCosta-Willis and took over the project. “I didn’t know anything about the history of Beale Street or the history of Memphis,” she admits. “And I really got interested and went to the Library of Congress, studied it, and thought that this history is fascinating. That led me to write Notable Black Memphians,” which has become an essential work of local history.

“I kept on being rebellious, but my activism took the form of my books,” she says, “because I was very influenced by other liberation movements in the 1970s, particularly the feminist rebellion and the gay rebellion. I protested in front of the White House and participated in the gay rights movement. I also remember demonstrating in Washington, in the Latino parade, chanting, “¡Sí Se Puede!” (Yes we can).

DeCosta-Willis has published 15 books, the most recent in January 2019, and she’s written some 200 papers.

“I am concerned about the direction our city is going in terms of the development focus being on Downtown and not on our neighborhoods, which are suffering from poverty, crime, food deserts, and other things.” — Miriam DeCosta-Willis

On returning to Memphis and with a new husband, she amped up her teaching. She taught first at LeMoyne College, then Owen College, and then Memphis State University. Then it was on to LeMoyne-Owen College.

A.W. Willis died of cancer in 1988, and she cared for him. They talked about what she would do and she determined that she needed to continue with what she knew and loved. She’d taught at Howard University in the 1970s and that was important to her because, as she says, “in my graduate work, I had studied primarily European literature, Spanish literature, and I didn’t know that there were blacks actually writing and publishing books in the Caribbean, Central America, Latin America and everything. So my real education began at Howard, which was so exciting.”

“After A.W. died, I taught,” she says. “I went back to Washington to live and taught at George Mason University. Then I went to the University of Maryland, where I retired in 1999.”

As she had with A.W., she found herself as a caregiver to her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease from 1999 to 2008. Even during those times, she wrote books.

DeCosta-Willis has long been involved in commissions and organizations at the national and local levels. Those experiences have given her an outlook on the state of the nation and the state of Memphis. She thinks the city is doing much better than the country.

As for the local scene, she says, “I am a little concerned about the direction our city is going in terms of the development focus being on Downtown and not on our neighborhoods, which are suffering from poverty, crime, food deserts, and other things. But I am strengthened by the leadership of Mayor Strickland and Mayor Harris and other people. But with all of these businessmen and developers getting on the council, there also needs to be people from the neighborhoods, grassroots people who want to fight for their areas.”

She says her memoir is going slowly, and she smiles as she says she hopes she can finish it. “It’s called The Lion’s Tale and I’m dedicating it to Sally, my oldest African relative who came from Dahomey in 1670. I represent the seventh generation, and besides my mother, it’s my great-grandfather who is my main inspiration. He was born a slave and when he died, he was a millionaire. He built a large home for his 12 children and he sent all of them to college. And he gave back to his community.”

DeCosta-Willis pauses a moment and says, “The title The Lion’s Tale is derived from an African proverb that says, until the lion tells his or her story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”