Dr. Miriam DeCosta Sugarmon Willis used the power of education to persist, overcome and knock down walls that would create opportunities for fellow females and African Americans.

The definition of a trailblazer, DeCosta Sugarmon Willis was denied entrance into graduate school at then- Memphis State University in 1957 for no reason other than being African American.

After being the first African American to attend the Westover Prep School, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College. She was accepted into a dual-graduate program at Johns Hopkins University after being denied at Memphis State. She completed her master’s and doctoral degrees in just two years, three years ahead of schedule, to become the first African American female to earn a doctorate from Johns Hopkins.

As a determined and highly accomplished academic, DeCosta Sugarmon Willis made history again in 1966 by becoming the first African American faculty member in University of Memphis history.

“Get your education, because they can’t take that away from you,” said DeCosta Sugarmon Willis. “That was a saying my great grandmother passed down to me. We always pursued education as the way to freedom.”

The UofM held a ceremony in December dedicating a historical marker to DeCosta Sugarmon Willis, who was known as DeCosta-Sugarmon when she joined the University, outside Jones Hall. She passed away less than a month later on Jan. 7 at age 86.

“This [marker] means a very great deal to me because it recognizes the part I played in the desegregation of Memphis,” said DeCosta Sugarmon Willis.

The marker sits on the opposite side of the Administration Building from another marker honoring the Memphis State Eight, the first African American students admitted to the UofM two years after DeCosta Sugarmon Willis was denied entry. Its creation is also part of a University-wide initiative to eradicate systemic racism and promote social justice.

“Her journey to becoming the first African American faculty member speaks to her strength and the evolution of diversity at this institution,” said her son, Tarik B. Sugarmon. “Our family would like to thank President M. David Rudd, the Board of Trustees, Representative G.A. Hardaway and the Shelby County Delegation and Black Caucus for the dedication of this historical marker.”

DeCosta Sugarmon Willis taught Spanish at Memphis State, served as the advisor to the Black Student Association and helped organize the Faculty Forum. She also held teaching positions at LeMoyne- Owen College, Howard University, George Mason University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, during her more than 40-year career in academia.

Her career brought her many honors and awards. She received a Johns Hopkins Fellowship, the Wellesley College Fellowship for Graduate Study, the Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year Award at LeMoyne- Owen, the Prominent Black Woman Award at the UofM and the Torchbearer of Afro- Hispanic Studies from the College Language Association. She was listed in the Directory of American Scholars, Who’s Who of Women, Leaders of Black America, International Authors and Writers Who’s Who, Dictionary of International Biography and other national and international directories.

DeCosta Sugarmon Willis’ activism was constant throughout her life. She organized a student protest as a high school student in Orangeburg, S.C., and later participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

A member of the NAACP’s Education Committee, she helped lead a boycott of Memphis City Schools to gain African American representation on the school board in the 1960s. She was jailed in Memphis while participating in civil rights demonstrations and remained active in marches and protests, primarily in Memphis and Washington, D.C., for several decades.

DeCosta Sugarmon Willis served as chair of the Tennessee Humanities Council and was a former board member of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, the Shelby County Historical Commission and the Memphis State University Center for Research on Women.

“I want to thank Dr. Miriam DeCosta Sugarmon Willis for what she has done for all of us,” said G. A. Hardaway, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. “This was an extraordinary woman. There’s little we can say that would give her the full credit and the proper honor she deserves.”

DeCosta Sugarmon Willis was also a renowned writer. She authored or edited 15 books, published 36 articles and 18 reviews in scholarly journals and presented 70 papers at conferences and seminars. Her works included The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells, Notable Black Memphians and Black Memphis Landmarks.

A loving and dedicated mother, she raised four children while earning her graduate degrees and embarking on her remarkable career.

“There are moments in the history of every institution that need to be memorialized,” said UofM President M. David Rudd during the marker dedication ceremony. “More often than not, those are moments that involved great individual courage, sacrifice and service. That’s what brings us here today to honor Dr. Miriam DeCosta Sugarmon Willis. Let me also say that while we are thrilled to be here today recognizing her contributions, we realize this is remarkably overdue.”