Civil Rights Activist, Author, and Academic Miriam DeCosta-Willis Dies

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Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, a trailblazing activist, distinguished academic, and prolific author died Thursday at her home. She was 86. 

Dr. DeCosta-Willis was honored last month with a historical marker that will be placed on the University of Memphis campus. It celebrates her being the first Black professor at the school even though years before, in 1957, she was denied entrance to then-Memphis State University because of her race.
Miriam DeCosta-Willis
  • Miriam DeCosta-Willis
In a Memphis magazine profile in 2019, she talked about her life in social justice reform and her writing. “I kept on being rebellious," she said, "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."

U of M President M. David Rudd said in a statement, “We are forever grateful for the remarkable courage, sacrifice and service of Dr. DeCosta-Willis over many years at the University of Memphis. 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."

In more than 40 years in academia, she also taught at LeMoyne-Owen College, Howard University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She authored or edited 15 books, including Notable Black Memphians and Black Memphis Landmarks.

In 1955, she married attorney Russell B. Sugarmon, with whom she had four children — Tarik, Elena, Erika, and Monique — and in 1972, she married attorney A. W. Willis, who predeceased her. She is survived by her four children, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Graveside services will be for immediate family. Donations may be sent to the U of M Miriam DeCosta Sugarmon Scholarship Fund at supportum.memphis.edu/decostascholarship.

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