In Memoriam: Miriam DeCosta-Willis, 1934-2021

Miriam Decosts-Willis, the first Black faculty member at what is now the University of Memphis and whose career in higher education spanned four decades, died on January 7 at her home in Memphis, Tennessee. She was 86 years old.

A native of Florence, Alabama, Dr. Decosta-Willis was the granddaughter of a slave. She was the first African American student to be admitted to Westover, a preparatory school in Middlebury, Connecticut. She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. When she was denied admission to graduate programs at what was then Memphis State University due to the color of her skin, she earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Dr. Decosta was one of the first Black women to earn a doctorate at Johns Hopkins.

Nearly, a decade after she was not allowed to enroll at what is now the University of Memphis, she was hired as the university’s first Black faculty member. During her more than 40-year career, Dr. Decosta-Wilis also taught at Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Howard University in Washington, D.C., George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“We are forever grateful for the remarkable courage, sacrifice, and service of Dr. DeCosta-Willis over many years at the University of Memphis,” said M. David Rudd, president of 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.”

An activist in the civil rights movement, Dr. Decosta-Willis participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped lead a boycott of Memphis Public Schools, and was jailed for participating in civil rights protests.

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  1. Ditto to Mr. Gilmore’s comment about “another hidden figure whose contributions were large.” I recently had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Decosta-Willis on a PBS program. I was reminded how much of an impact she made in my life when I was enrolled at Lemoyne-Owen. My heart is sadden by her passing. However, she will not be forgotten!

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