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VOL. 126 | NO. 49 | Friday, March 11, 2011

Telling the Story

Library’s Memphis Room grows with Decosta-Willis donation

By Bill Dries

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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.

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)

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.

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, “Notable Black Memphians,” 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.”

The new 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.

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