Miriam DeCosta-Willis (1934-2021)

The Memphis Public Libraries honors the life of Miriam DeCosta-Willis, a force for change in the world when it was desperately needed. Following is a biography and select images from The Miriam DeCosta-Willis Collection, found within the Memphis Room in the History Department on the 4th Floor of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

“Miriam Dolores DeCosta was born into an African American family of educators on November 1, 1934, in Florence, Alabama. Her mother, Beautine Hubert DeCosta (1913-2008), a graduate of Spelman College, received an MSW degree from Atlanta University, and her father, Frank A. DeCosta (1910-1972), a graduate of Lincoln University, received a masters degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

Miriam DeCosta and brother Frank (1945)

Miriam and her younger brother, Frank (1935-1999), grew up on college campuses, where they attended public and private laboratory schools in Georgia, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. In 1950, Miriam became the first African American student admitted to Westover School, a preparatory school in Middlebury, Connecticut. Two years later, she entered Wellesley College, where she was awarded Freshman Honors, named a Wellesley College Scholar, and inducted into Phi Beta Kappa Society. She received an M. A. degree in 1960, and a Ph.D. degree in Romance languages in 1967 from The Johns Hopkins University.

Russell and Miriam Sugarmon and children (1959)

After completing her junior year at Wellesley, Miriam married Russell B. Sugarmon, a graduate of Rutgers University and Harvard University Law School, and the couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1956, following her graduation. The Sugarmons had four children–Tarik (1956), Elena (1958), Erika (1962), and Monique (1964)–before divorcing in 1967. Three years later, Miriam moved, with the children, to Washington, D. C., where, in 1972, she married Archie W. Willis, Jr., a Memphis attorney, businessman, and former state legislator. She moved back to Memphis in 1976, but returned to Washington a year after her husband’s death in 1988.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis and A. W. Willis

Miriam DeCosta-Willis was a college professor and administrator for more than forty years, beginning in 1957, when she became instructor of French at LeMoyne College. After completing a graduate degree, she taught French and English at Owen Junior College and, in 1966, became the first Black faculty member at Memphis State University, as assistant and, later, associate professor of Spanish. She joined the faculty of Howard University in 1970, and was elected chair of the Department of Romance Languages four years later. For a decade (1979- 89), she served as professor of Romance Languages at LeMoyne-Owen College, where she founded and directed the Du Bois Scholars Program. In 1989, she was appointed Commonwealth Professor of Spanish at George Mason University in Virginia. Two years later, she became a professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, from which she retired in 1999.

Research in African, Caribbean, African American, Afro-Hispanic, and Latin American literature and culture, as well as Black Memphis history, has informed the teaching and scholarship of Miriam DeCosta-Willis. Since 1967, she has published thirty-six articles and eighteen reviews in scholarly journals, as well as seventeen book chapters, and she has presented seventy papers at conferences, seminars, and symposia. She has also authored, edited or co-edited nine books, including Blacks in Hispanic Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays (1977), Erotique Noire / Black Erotica (1992), The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995), Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003), Notable Black Memphians (2008), and Black Memphis Landmarks (2010). Her scholarship has, on occasion, been funded through grants from the United Negro College Fund, Tennessee Humanities Council, and National Endowment for the Humanities, and her research has taken her to more than fifty countries, including Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Ghana, Spain, and the Dominican Republic.

Over the course of her career, Dr. DeCosta-Willis has received several fellowships and awards, including a Johns Hopkins Fellowship, Wellesley College Fellowship for Graduate Study, Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year Award at LeMoyne-Owen College, Prominent Black Woman Award at Memphis State University, and Torchbearer of Afro-Hispanic Studies by the College Language Association. She is also 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 four other national/international directories. Active in professional organizations such as the College Language Association and the Association of Caribbean Studies, she served as associate editor of two journals: SAGE: A Scholarly Journal of Black Women and the Afro-Hispanic Review.

An activist throughout her life, she organized a student protest at Wilkinson High School, joined her mother in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and was jailed in Memphis for participating in civil rights demonstrations. Known as “Laurie”–a nickname acquired at Westover–she served as advisor to the Black Students Association, campaigned for Black political candidates, and, as chair of the Memphis NAACP’s Education Committee, led a boycott of local public schools in the 1960s, and joined protest marches in Washington in the 1990s. Active in civic and community affairs, DeCosta-Willis, a life member of the NAACP, chaired the Tennessee Humanities Council, and served on the boards of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, Shelby County Historical Commission, and MSU Center for Research on Women. As co-founder and chair of the Memphis Black Writers’ Workshop, she organized symposia such as “The Memphis Story . . . Lest We Forget: 1950-1980,” put together a Black History series for WHBQ-TV Channel 13, and co-edited Homespun Images: An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers and Artists.”

Miriam DeCosta-Willis has been a long-time partner with the Memphis Public Libraries.

In 2009, she spoke at the library regarding her 1969 protest of the Memphis City Schools. Here is an article from a Memphis Public Library publication describing her talk.

In 2011, Miriam DeCosta-Willis donated many of her personal items to the Memphis Public Libraries. The Daily News documented that donation in the March 2011 article by Bill Dries “Library’s Memphis Room grows with Decosta-Willis donation”.

“G. Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the Memphis & Shelby County Room, handles papers and photographs from the Miriam Decosta-Willis collection” (Photo: Lance Murphey) Courtesy of the Daily News

In 2019, she participated in our annual Bookstock Festival celebrating local authors.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis was a prolific writer on various topics. Browse all of her titles within our collection.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis (1934-2021)