Black Memphis: Landmarks

Black Memphis: Landmarks


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Miriam DeCosta-Willis brings both academic rigor and narrative grace to an act of love and

a work of wonder. This work is more than just an account; it explores what it is that makes

Black Memphis special and is as profound a historical moment as those it chronicles



 Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989)  / Notable Black Memphians

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Black Memphis Landmarks

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Published 2011 / ISBN: 978-1-935316-336

Paperback, 208 pages / Price: $ 20.00


These sites, some of which are forever lost, must never be forgotten. Thankfully, with this book, Miriam DeCosta-Willis makes a major contribution in preserving the memory of many of these places and the pioneers associated with them.—Ronald A. Walter, Co-author of Nineteenth Century Memphis Families of Color, 1850-1900

Black Memphis Landmarks is a must read book for anyone interested in the numerous contributions that African Americans have made to the development of Memphis. Dr. DeCosta-Willis has documented many of the landmarks and achievements made by Black people in Memphis.—Frank J. Banks, co-founder Banks, Finley, Thomas & White, CPA

Miriam DeCosta-Willis brings both academic rigor and narrative grace to an act of love and a work of wonder. This work is more than just an account; it explores what it is that makes Black Memphis special and is as profound a historical moment as those it chronicles. This one you keep.—Arthur Flowers, author of De Mojo Blues and Another Good Loving Blues

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Introduction: Testaments to Our History

Historical Timeline of Landmarks


I The Arts, Sports, and Entertainment

II Businesses and Professional Firms

III Churches and Other Religious Organizations

IV Historic Sites and Events

V Hospitals and Medical Facilities

VI Media: Newspapers, Periodicals, and Radio

VII Neighborhoods: Parks, Streets, Housing Projects

VIII Organizations: Civic, Social, and Political

IX Schools, Colleges, and Other Educational Inst.

Photo Credits

Selected Bibliography


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To acquire your copy of

Black Memphis Landmarks

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Published 2011 / ISBN: 978-1-935316-336

Paperback, 208 pages / Price: $ 20.00

Make checks/money orders payable and send to:

Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis

585 S. Greer Street, #901

Memphis, TN 38111

Allow 10 days for delivery

(For mail orders, enclose $ 20.00 for each copy, plus $3.00 postage for the first copy

and $1.00 per copy for each additional copy.)

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Author professor Dr Miriam DeCosta Willis donates civil rights collection to library—By Linda A. Moore—Items from the civil rights collection of Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis will be dedicated Saturday at the Central Library on Poplar. A witness to the civil rights movement, she put together a collection of articles, books, photographs and academic papers . . . Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

Donating the collection will allow others to build and expand on her teaching and research on African-American heritage, said DeCosta-Willis, 76. As the first African-American professor at Memphis State University and a university professor for 40 years, much of what she donated is academic papers, including research materials and unpublished manuscripts.

“There are things I’ve collected through my interest in local black history—funeral programs, newspaper clippings, magazine articles,” she said. “And something that’s really dear to me are the papers from Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, the first black female physician in Memphis.”

The photographs were hard to let go. “They brought back a lot of memories,” she said. DeCosta-Willis was married to civil rights attorney Russell Sugarmon and is the widow of civil rights attorney A.W. Willis Jr., the first African-American man elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in the 20th century.

She was born in Florence, Alabama, attended a girls preparatory school in Middlebury, Conn., and majored in Spanish at Wellesley College. DeCosta-Willis has a doctorate in romance languages from Johns Hopkins University. . . .  “It chronicles not only a leading academic scholar in the field of African-American literature, but also chronicles an important chapter in Memphis,” said Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the history department at the Central Library. . .

The library’s collection already includes papers from A.W. Willis Jr., George W. Lee and Maxine Smith. “We are aggressively trying to collect papers, photos, any documents related to the civil rights history in Memphis because what we’re trying to do is tell Memphis’ story and that’s an important part of Memphis history,” Dowdy said.

The information DeCosta-Willis has amassed as an author and activist is important, said Barbara Andrews, director of education at the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum doesn’t have the resources, the staff or the capacity to house archival collections, she said. “It is a significant donation that she is giving to the city and to the world,” Andrews said. . . .

“There are things I haven’t put in the collection yet, like my 35 journals,” DeCosta-Willis said. “They won’t be opened until 25 years after I’m gone.”—CommercialAppeal

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Telling the Story

Library’s Memphis Room grows with Decosta-Willis donation

By Bill Dries

As Miriam DeCosta-Willis spoke in the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center, a set of 19 gray file boxes was neatly lined up near the podium. The files, containing manuscripts, notes, photographs and other items, are “parts of our history that never would be known” without DeCosta-Willis donating them to a growing archive in The Memphis Room, said library director Keenon McCloy. The papers of the Memphis civil rights veteran, teacher, writer and historian join a collection of 250 individuals and families who have donated their papers to The Memphis Room, the library’s long-established archive on the city and county’s history.

Wayne Dowdy, library history department senior manager, calls it “the story of Memphis—the whole story.” And DeCosta-Willis is a prominent part of that story, even if she protests that she isn’t famous. The papers and photographs are a mix of her research into Memphis history and her own life. She participated in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 during visits to that city. She attended Medgar Evers’ funeral.

She told a group of more than 100 in The Memphis Room that for a time she didn’t consider herself a participant but an observer. She was among the black men and women denied admission to the University of Memphis in the 1950s.

G. Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the Memphis & Shelby County Room, handles papers and photographs from the Miriam Decosta-Willis collection at the Memphis Public Library. Willis’ collection includes photographs from the civil rights movement, correspondence and her scholarship studying African-American literature and Memphis history. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Although she had a degree from Wellesley College, she and Maxine Smith were denied admission in a decision by the university that changed local history. “That started her on her journey and that started me on my journey in terms of civil rights,” she said. “Because we were observing history in the making, we did not realize we were also participants in that history.”

She would later become the university’s first black faculty member.“But that’s not as important as my involvement in civil rights on campus as faculty adviser to the Black Student Association and organizer of faculty forums.”

DeCosta-Willis dedicates her latest book, Black Memphis: Landmarks, to her late husband, A.W. Willis, whom she credits for encouraging her pursuit of the city’s history. Willis was one of the city’s black attorneys who became the cornerstone of the dismantling of racial segregation in Memphis. He was also a state representative and business leader.

As he worked on bringing back Beale Street in the early 1970s, he encouraged his wife to research the street’s history. “I learned things about Memphis that I had never heard of before,” she said. The research and other work over the years led to Notable Black Memphians. This reference book offers biographical sketches and notes on 345 Memphians born between 1795 and 1972.

“I worked all my life trying to preserve our history. But these are just biographical sketches,” she said. “These are just descriptions of organizations, schools and churches and nightclubs and things that go way back to antebellum times and come up to where we are today. I know much is left out. But at some point you just have to stop your research or the books will never get out.”

DeCosta-Willis herself has used The Memphis Room as well as the Library of Congress in her research into the city’s history. Her 1995 editing of The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells brought to life not only the keen mind of Wells, but also placed the indomitable, strong-willed crusader in the context of the city whose violence made her a national and international figure.

Like most historians, DeCosta-Willis has had heartbreaking moments in her pursuit of material not yet in any books. She recalled funeral home owner and matriarch Frances Hayes telling her she had in her attic programs from every funeral at the business since the turn of the 20th century. DeCosta-Willis said she later pursued the lead only to be told the programs had all been thrown out in a spring cleaning. “That is what has happened to our history,” she said.

11 March 2011

Source: MemphisDailyNews

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)—This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

Also included are short biographies of barbers, sanitation workers, and postal employees such as Alma Morris, T. O. Jones, and Tom Lee—ordinary citizens who made extraordinary contributions to their community. The result of ten years of painstaking research in archives and libraries, this study draws upon interviews, private papers, newspaper articles, and photographic collections to illuminate Black achievements in Memphis, Tennessee.

Located in a bend of the Mississippi River, in the heart of the Bible Belt, and in the center of a tri-state region that includes Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, Memphis is the site of a rich African American culture that finds expression in blues and jazz, in poetry and fiction, and in painting and sculpture. Less well known, perhaps, are Black cultural expressions in business, athletics, and medicine: for example, the founding of hospitals and a medical school; the building of a public park/auditorium and the first Black-owned baseball stadium in the country; and the creation of the South’s first integrated law firm and first Black savings and loan association.

Sons and daughters of the city include city and county mayors, an Olympic medalist, an Oscar-winning actor, and former member of the Federal Communications Commission, CEO of the Regional Medical Center, president of Colorado State University, and professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School.

The lives of these outstanding Black Memphians provide a context for understanding and interpreting the social, political, and cultural history of a city in the Deep South. Notable Black Memphians is a vital addition to all collections in African American studies and American history.

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The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Foreword by Mary Helen Washington. Afterword by Dorothy Sterling

DeCosta-Willis makes it possible to look back in a new way into the character of wells, and, more than that, into the daily life of African-Americans a century ago.

— Chicago Tribune

Wells and DeCosta-Willis join together across time in a scholarly collaborative dance of sisterhood to produce a work that not only holds an insightful mirror to the past, but could be used as a guidepost for African-American and other women today in living totally self-defined lives.

—Tri-State Defender

A unique look at the life o an independent, unmarried African-American woman coping with financial hardships, romantic entanglements, sexism, and racism . . . A substantial contribution to African-American Studies

—Publisher Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 27 February 2010



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