1st Black faculty member at Memphis State University dies

Updated: Jan. 7, 2021 at 3:14 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Memphis community is mourning the loss of a veteran educator and trailblazer in the community.

Doctor Miriam DeCosta-Willis worked in education for 40 years at several area colleges.

Over her four-decade career in academia, DeCosta-Willis taught at LeMoyne College, Owen Junior College, MSU, Howard University, LeMoyne-Owen College, George Mason University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In a statement from her family, she’s remembered as “a pioneer in the struggle for racial and gender equality.”

They write of DeCosta-Willis’ trailblazing accomplishments: She once organized a student protest in high school and participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott; she was jailed during the Civil Rights Movement and helped lead a boycott of Memphis public schools; she joined protest marches in Washington D.C. and was the first African American admitted to Westover, a Connecticut preparatory school.

In 1966, DeCosta-Willis became the first Black faculty member at Memphis State University -- a school that denied her admission nine years earlier. Last month, the University of Memphis dedicated a historical marker in her honor.

“We are forever grateful for the remarkable courage, sacrifice and service of Dr. DeCosta-Willis over many years at the University of Memphis,” said UofM President M. David Rudd. “There are moments in the history of every institution that need to be memorialized. The great courage of Dr. DeCosta-Willis is one of those moments that will forever be remembered on our campus. On behalf of the entire UofM community, I extend my deepest condolences to her family.”

Before joining MSU’s faculty, DeCosta-Willis was one of the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.

She died surrounded by family Wednesday at the age of 86.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations to be made to the University of Memphis c/o the Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Sugarmon Scholarship Fund.

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