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Thu, 11.01.1934

Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Educator born

Miriam DeCosta-Willis

*Miriam DeCosta-Willis was born on this date in 1934.  She is a Black University professor and author. 

From Florence, Alabama, her parents were educators Beautine and Frank DeCosta, she is the older of their two children.   Her father was a college professor and administrator who served as Dean of the Graduate School at Morgan State University, and her mother was a social worker, college professor, and, later, a counselor with the Baltimore Public Schools.  

Her parents taught at Alabama State Teachers College and South Carolina State College before moving to Baltimore.  The teachings of her father who emphasized, "education, achievement, accomplishment, entering the professions, having a good life, and not rocking the boat,” gave her the strength and stability that made her the powerful and successful.  She graduated from Westover School in Connecticut and received a B.A. degree, Phi Beta Kappa, from Wellesley College, as well as M.A. and PhD. degrees from the Johns Hopkins University.

In 1966, She became the first Black faculty member at Memphis State University where she had been denied admission years before. A year later, she became the first Black woman to obtain her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.  After graduating from JHU with her doctorate, she remained active in the American Civil Rights movement for as long as she could. As the chair of the NAACP’s Education Committee, her work played a central part in ending segregation in a range of settings, both through her own example and her activism. During the 1960s, she participated in march’s and demonstrations in Memphis.  

In 1972, she married Attorney A. W. Willis and four years later she returned to Memphis, where she taught at LeMoyne-Owen College, It was here that she became very interested in Black women’s literature.  She later wrote several successful books that directly examined this field of study, including Erotique Noire / Black Erotica (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992) and Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2003), and a host of path-breaking articles. She also served as associate editor of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women for more than ten years.

In 1989, she taught Spanish at George Mason University. In 1991, she took a position at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she taught until her retirement from teaching in 1999. Today she continues to divide her time between Washington, D.C. and Memphis. She finshed a biography of her father, as well as her own memoirs. She is also working on a book entitled, Notable Black Memphians.  DeCosta-Willis represents in the race and gender conflicted society of today.   

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