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First Black Faculty Member at Memphis State University Dead at 86

Memphis trailblazer and veteran educator Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis has died, reports WMC 5 news. She was 86.

DeCosta made history by becoming the first Black faculty member at Memphis State University in 1966 — the same school that had denied her admission nine years prior.

Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis

DeCosta-Willis spent 40 years in education and taught at LeMoyne College, Owen Junior College, Memphis State University, Howard University, George Mason University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Her family called her “a pioneer in the struggle for racial and gender equality,” sharing courageous accomplishments throughout her life. To name a few: she participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was jailed during the Civil Rights Movement, helped lead a boycott of Memphis public schools, joined protest marches in Washington, D.C., and was the first African American admitted to the Connecticut preparatory school Westover.

“We are forever grateful for the remarkable courage, sacrifice and service of Dr. DeCosta-Willis over many years at the University of Memphis,” said UofM President Dr. M. David Rudd. “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. On behalf of the entire UofM community, I extend my deepest condolences to her family.”

The university dedicated a historical marker in her honor last month.