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Maxine Smith

Civil rights activist, executive secretary, and state government employee Maxine Smith was born on October 31, 1929, in Memphis, Tennessee. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and went on to receive her B.A. degree in biology from Spelman College and her M.S. degree in French from Middlebury College. In 1957, Smith applied to the University of Memphis and was rejected because of her race. This brought her to the attention of the local NAACP chapter, which she joined and became executive secretary of in 1962.

Having helped to organize the desegregation of Memphis public schools in 1960, Smith also escorted the first thirteen Memphis children to benefit from the Memphis school desegregation. Smith continued to fight for civil rights and school integration throughout her career, organizing lawsuits, sit-ins, and marches, including the “Black Monday” student boycotts that lasted from 1969 to 1972. Smith served on the coordinating committee for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that Martin Luther King Jr. travelled to Memphis to support before his assassination.

In 1971, Smith won election to the Memphis Board of Education, a position which she held until her retirement in 1995. In 1978, Smith was instrumental in ensuring W.W. Herenton’s election as the first African American school superintendant in Memphis, kicking off his political career. Smith was elected president of the Memphis Board of Education in 1991, the same year that her protégée Herenton became the first elected African American Mayor of Memphis.

Smith received more than 160 awards for her efforts on behalf of educational equality and civil rights, including the National NAACP Leadership Award, the Bill of Rights Award from the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Whitney H. Young Jr. Award from the National Education Association. She was a member of the board of directors for many charitable and civic organizations, including The National Civil Rights Museum, the NAACP, the Women’s Foundation for Greater Memphis, and the National Kidney Foundation. Smith has also been featured in several documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including Oscar-nominated Witness From the Balcony of Room 306 and Memphis: The Promised Land . She passed away on April 26, 2013.

Accession Number

A2010.094

Sex

Female

Interview Date

7/30/2010

Last Name

Smith

Maker Category
Marital Status

Widow

Schools

Booker T. Washington High School

Spelman College

Middlebury College

Lincoln Elementary School

Porter Elementary School

First Name

Maxine

Birth City, State, Country

Memphis

HM ID

SMI23

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Tennessee

Favorite Vacation Destination

Cruises

Favorite Quote

I Gave It My Best Shot.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Tennessee

Birth Date

10/31/1929

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Memphis

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Pasta

Death Date

4/26/2013

Short Description

Executive secretary, foreign languages professor, civil rights activist, and state government employee Maxine Smith (1929 - 2013 ) was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, Tennessee, where she served on the school board for twenty-four years.

Employment

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Memphis City Government

LeMoyne-Owen College

Favorite Color

Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Maxine Smith's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Maxine Smith lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Maxine Smith talks about her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Maxine Smith describes her mother's teaching career

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Maxine Smith remembers her father

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Maxine Smith describes how her parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Maxine Smith talks about her father's education and employment

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Maxine Smith lists her siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Maxine Smith describes her community in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Maxine Smith remembers visiting her father at the Memphis Veterans Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Maxine Smith reflects upon her early family life, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Maxine Smith describes her early personality

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Maxine Smith reflects upon her early family life, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Maxine Smith remembers her parents' finances

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Maxine Smith reflects upon her upbringing

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Maxine Smith describes her schooling

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Maxine Smith remembers her father's burial

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Maxine Smith talks about being the youngest of her siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Maxine Smith remembers the Tri-State Fair in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Maxine Smith recalls her family's periodical subscriptions

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Maxine Smith remembers Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Maxine Smith remembers enrolling at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Maxine Smith remembers joining the board of the NAACP

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Maxine Smith recalls the language program at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Maxine Smith describes her courtship with her husband, Vasco Smith, Jr., pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Maxine Smith describes her courtship with her husband, Vasco Smith, Jr., pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Maxine Smith talks about her husband's upbringing

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Maxine Smith remembers returning to Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Maxine Smith talks about her social circle in Memphis, Tennessee, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Maxine Smith remembers joining the Memphis branch of the NAACP

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Maxine Smith talks about her experiences at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Maxine Smith talks about her social circle in Memphis, Tennessee, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Maxine Smith talks about the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Maxine Smith recalls the agenda of the NAACP Memphis Branch, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Maxine Smith recalls the agenda of the NAACP Memphis Branch, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Maxine Smith describes Memphis Mayor E.H. Crump's political machine

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Maxine Smith remembers her high school principal, Blair T. Hunt, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Maxine Smith describes the voter registration drives in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Maxine Smith talks about voter disenfranchisement in Shelby County, Tennessee

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Maxine Smith remembers the elections of Russell B. Sugarmon and A.W. Willis, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Maxine Smith remembers attending the March on Washington

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Maxine Smith reflects upon the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Maxine Smith remembers the death of Medgar Evers

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Maxine Smith talks about the Tennessee General Assembly elections of 1964

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Maxine Smith remembers confronting the Board of Education of Memphis City Schools

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Maxine Smith reflects upon her civic service

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Maxine Smith talks about the Black Monday boycotts in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Maxine Smith remembers the support for her school board candidacy

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Maxine Smith talks about the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Maxine Smith recalls meeting W.W. Herenton

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Maxine Smith recalls W.W. Herenton's election as superintendent of the Memphis City Schools, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Maxine Smith recalls W.W. Herenton's election as superintendent of the Memphis City Schools, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Maxine Smith talks about Memphis Mayor W.W. Herenton's leadership

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Maxine Smith talks about her support for congressional candidate Steve Cohen

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Maxine Smith talks about the political climate in Memphis, Tennessee, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Maxine Smith talks about the political climate of Memphis, Tennessee, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Maxine Smith reflects upon her life

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Maxine Smith reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Maxine Smith describes the founding of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Maxine Smith talks about the National Civil Rights Museum

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Maxine Smith reflects upon the legacy of her husband, Vasco Smith, Jr.

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Maxine Smith describes how she would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$5

DAStory

6$3

DATitle
Maxine Smith describes the voter registration drives in Memphis, Tennessee
Maxine Smith remembers confronting the Board of Education of Memphis City Schools
Transcript
But then you all were registering voters and, now--$$Oh yeah this is (simultaneous)--$$--(simultaneous) getting more voters.$$This is--$$Okay. So you're getting into the voter registration?$$Uh-huh.$$Okay.$$Now this is in f- my first little task on the NAACP [NAACP Memphis Branch, Memphis, Tennessee].$$Okay.$$We went in, in two years we had over fifty thousand and all since the history of Memphis [Tennessee], we had less than ten thousand. We had ten thou- fifty thousand black registered voters.$$New, new voters?$$New voters.$$Okay.$$Registered there.$$Now how, how did you do it? Did you go door to door or?$$Door to door, yeah, that's what I tell these politicians now; they got my old self out here trying to help our politicians (laughter). I said I'm too old, but, so they put me on the billboard (laughter). But you know everything is so technical, so computer now, which is good. But I still, well that's my age and that's you know how I was raised. See the good in that personal contact.$$Okay.$$You know I'll, I mentioned the political club, the Democratic club [Shelby County Democratic Club], you said, how did we get--? We organized, we had eighty precincts all with a significant amount of black votes organized block by block. Each block worker was assigned or responsible for his block, if it was too short, two blocks maybe. And, and we'd ret- we'd go get them 'cause we didn't have postcard voting, registration then. Take them down to the, you know, voter registration office and then peo- people got killed, this what Chaney [James Chaney], Schwerner [Michael Schwerner] and Goodman [Andrew Goodman] got killed for in Mississippi, and they aren't the only ones. But what we were doing in many places before they went crazy, and Memphis never tried to block us because Crump [E.H. Crump] wanted these folks voting, so they couldn't stop that. But block by block we'd call by telephone, well we'd get them registered. We'd have to pick them up, find somebody with a car, buy a little gas to help him 'cause we couldn't even--some of us couldn't even afford gas. Then we had to go get them on voting day or Election Day and see that they voted and we had a little card file; we didn't have computers then. With every registered voter, we'd spend our money instead of paying folks, getting voter registration lists. We'd have card files, and as they voted, we'd put the voters in one box and about two o'clock in the evening if whatever's left we start sending troops out there to get them. "Go on out of this house and vote." We could get--'cause it wasn't as many voters then, it wasn't as many of us, we could get a 75 percent turnout. And 90 to 95 percent of us were voting together, you understand what I mean? Now NAACP could work up to the point of who you vote for 'cause our dri- drive, voter registration drives was to get 'em out, get 'em to vote, but we couldn't tell them who to vote for. So that's where the political club came in and we were so effective.$I wanted to ask you a question about Fannie Lou Hamer. Did, did, did she ever come to Memphis [Tennessee] to talk or anything that you remember?$$Yeah I saw her somewhere, oh gosh she was quite a figure. I remember her better at the Democratic National Convention in '72 [1972 Democratic National Convention] when that was my first national convention. That was in Miami [Florida], Vasco [Smith's husband, Vasco Smith, Jr.] didn't even know I was going. I had, and I was--my heart troubles were beginning to show I guess.$$Well maybe let's wait to the end then.$$Uh-huh.$$Just talk about, now, 'cause what you, we, you, we had started talking about the school crisis in Memphis [Tennessee] and the Black Mondays--$$Yeah.$$Tell us about what Black Monday was all about and what?$$Well we had a list, I have them somewhere here, I'm so disorganized, of fifteen demands that we took to the school board [Board of Education of Memphis City Schools; Shelby County Board of Education].$$And you took them as, as what? As, as the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] or as--$$Yeah, as NAACP. I was the spokesperson because I was executive secretary of the NAACP [NAACP Memphis Branch, Memphis, Tennessee]. For years, see, we always had kept a pretty even balance racially--numerically and racially. You know some years it may be a few more whites, some years it may be a few more black, but we never had a black school board member. We didn't have any black administrators, the only administrators we had was black principals who were principals over black schools. And, and whatever, they did it over black schools. And we were demanding more black representation that kind of imaged the s- school system. Every time a vacancy would occur on the school board, we'd go down--you know by death or resignation or something, we'd go down and ask for a representative, a black person to be appointed. 'Cause it filled themselves, I think the, the mayor of the city commission in those days I think it was called, had to okay whatever the school board ruled it was filled. You know not by vote, but, but they just turned their backs on us. I'll never forget the straw that really broke them down that began, I told, I'm so glad I didn't know this lady was about to die. There was a group of white women, mostly Jewish women who had, they called funds for--their, their primary interest was feeding the hungry children. I think they called themselves funds for needy children, fund for something; they had a name for that movement. And I went to the school board, Laurie Willis Sugarmon [HistoryMaker Miriam DeCosta-Willis], she was one, I don't think I got four in that car (laughter) looked like I had a vacant space, I was kind of late getting to the school board. 'Cause I was trying to get at least one car full (laughter). But we went in there and Bailey (unclear)--what is his name? Ed Bailey, Edward Bailey [sic. Edgar H. Bailey] was president, and I threw, told him--you know I served on the board twenty-four years after that. I didn't know what the procedure was then, but he was telling me I couldn't speak and I kept walking. "I, I, I have something I would like to present to the board." Now these women--I just knew it was full of people. I didn't look around--and it happened that I knew most of them, I wasn't looking around, but I was just, see the cameras had closed up. And I wasn't looking for a camera, I never have looked for a camera, that's never really excited me. And these, all these women and these are white women now, jumped up and started clapping. How them cameras--and they thought, everybody, they thought I was with them (laughter). I didn't know what was going on (laughter). So I got there and presented my fifteen demands from the NAACP, and we had some kind of exchange of words or, I don't know, I don't remember what. But the big thing I had a roomful of women they were mostly women it maybe a few men. White women mostly if any blacks, I don't know, and that was headlines (laughter) that was the beginning of Black Monday.

The Honorable Sandye Jean McIntyre, II

Distinguished professor and diplomat Sandye Jean McIntyre II was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on September 18, 1923. He spent most of his youth in Cleveland, Ohio. McIntyre's father, Sandy John, was a professor and a minister, and his mother Gladys was a teacher. McIntyre was educated in the Cleveland public school system and received a B.A. degree in French in 1947 from Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. Returning to Cleveland, McIntyre attended Case Western Reserve University and earned an M.A. degree in 1948. In 1951, McIntyre was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in France at the Université de Grenoble and the Université de Paris (the Sorbonne). He completed the requirements for a Doctorat d'Université, and was awarded “une équivalence doctorale.” McIntyre returned to Case Western Reserve University earning a Ph.D. in French in 1974. He has subsequently been a Senior Fulbright Scholar to Israel, Senegal, Mali, Gambia and Liberia.

Dr. McIntyre began his teaching career in 1948 at Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he still teaches. During the course of his career, he has been active in a number of programs promoting international education, including a 1951 appointment by his university to direct the Fulbright program. His oversight of this program at Morgan State has produced one of the highest numbers of Fulbright awards of any college or university in the United States, and definitely more than any other historically black institution of higher education.

Diplomacy has also been an important facet of McIntyre's career, including being named, in 1956, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Haiti, and, in 1970, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Senegal. McIntyre is the recipient of awards and honors from many countries, including France, which decorated him as a Knight and Officer in the prestigious “Ordre des Palmes Académques.” He was designated in 1980 as “International Consul of the Year” by the International Consular Academy.

McIntyre received numerous citations, awards and other forms of recognition for his excellence in teaching from local, national and international organizations. In 1957, he was chosen by the State Department to represent the teaching profession in the “Voice of America” worldwide broadcast as a member of the “Famous American Negro” series. The Institute of International Education gave him its 1974 “Individual Award” in recognition of distinguished service to international education and Morgan State University named an international award in his honor. McIntyre was listed by Baltimore Magazine as one of “Baltimore's Best and Brightest Brains” in 1978. He was designated in 1987 as the Maryland “Professional Employee of the Year” and received the Maryland Association for Higher Education’s “Outstanding Educator” award in 1989. He was the recipient in 1992 of the “Outstanding Leadership in the Profession” award presented by the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

A World War II Army veteran, McIntyre was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with oak leaf cluster. He was the author of more than fifty French one-act comedies and traveled in all the major countries of the world.

McIntyre passed away on October 8, 2006.

Accession Number

A2003.125

Sex

Male

Interview Date

6/7/2003

Last Name

McIntyre

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

Jean

Schools

Central High School

Johnson C. Smith University

Case Western Reserve University

First Name

Sandye

Birth City, State, Country

Pine Bluff

HM ID

MCI01

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Arkansas

Favorite Vacation Destination

Paris, France

Favorite Quote

Time Is Money.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Birth Date

9/18/1923

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Coq Au Vin

Death Date

10/8/2006

Short Description

Foreign languages professor The Honorable Sandye Jean McIntyre, II (1923 - 2006 ) taught at Morgan State for more than fifty years and served as honorary consul to Senegal.

Employment

Morgan State University

Republic of Haiti

Republic of Senegal

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
0,0:1830,10:6570,120:8387,162:11863,243:16366,370:89680,1409:90604,1581:92032,1602:92536,1608:114680,2035:155432,2599:199780,3145:239510,3480:251422,3645:290930,4037$0,0:1872,44:15756,291:25434,372:25924,378:30620,443:34306,489:34792,496:35602,506:36736,523:43805,596:46071,649:57710,867:59976,919:83722,1184:85234,1213:99410,1421:109184,1550:111404,1779:131278,2014:158338,2318:171299,2456:171880,2464:173125,2491:182580,2572
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Sandye McIntyre's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Sandye McIntyre lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his family history

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Sandye McIntyre describes his mother, Gladys Means McIntyre Moore

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Sandye McIntyre describes his father, Sandy McIntyre

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his father's French ancestry and his godfather, Emile Blais De Sauze

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Sandye McIntyre describes his childhood interests like reading and tennis

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Sandye McIntyre describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his two sisters

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Sandye McIntyre remembers influential teachers from his grade school years

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his interactions with Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Sandye McIntyre describes his post-graduate experience after graduating from Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio in 1940

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Sandye McIntyre describes his decision to attend Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Sandye McIntyre remembers learning French from his godfather, Emile Blais De Sauze, and from his professor, Monsieur Adam

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, pt.1

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, pt.2

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Sandye McIntyre describes his decision to teach at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Sandye McIntyre describes his tenure at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Sandye McIntyre describes his senior year at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his experience at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Sandye McIntyre describes his Fulbright experience in France

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his own Fulbright experience and his work on the Fulbright at Morgan State University

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Sandye McIntyre talks about Negritude and French intellectuals of African descent

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Sandye McIntyre describes his reception in Europe

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Sandye McIntyre talks about the Fulbright Program at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Sandye McIntyre remembers meeting African American expatriates in France

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Sandye McIntyre talks about Josephine Baker's career in France

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his Bronze Star Medal

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Sandye McIntyre talks about people he has met and admires like Gandhi

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Sandye McIntyre describes his role as the director of the Fulbright Program at Morgan State University and notable alumni

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Sandye McIntyre talks about his teaching methodology

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Sandye McIntyre talks about Haiti

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Sandye McIntyre remembers learning about racism in Brazil

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Sandye McIntyre talks about racism in the world and the impact of racism on future generations

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Sandye McIntyre describes a Wolof devil mask he purchased in Dakar, Senegal

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Sandye McIntyre describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Sandye McIntyre reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Sandye McIntyre talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Sandye McIntyre narrates his photographs, pt.1

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Sandye McIntyre narrates his photographs, pt.2

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$4

DAStory

7$1

DATitle
Sandye McIntyre talks about people he has met and admires like Gandhi
Sandye McIntyre talks about Haiti
Transcript
And this, these are things that--memories that come back to--and you say to yourself sometimes: I worked for fifty-five years. I have no money to show for it as such. I've only got fabulous memories. I've been to every major country in the world, and I've talked with heads of state and all. I've got paintings and artifacts from all over the world, but I have very little finance to show for it, you know. But I say is--what's more important, that or the memories, or the contacts you made, the people you've encountered, and I have encountered some fabulous people, not only heads of state and dignitaries, but people like cab drivers. I recall Dr. [Carleen] Leggett and I went up to see La de Falls (ph.) and we were with, with an Algerian cab driver who told us about the tremendous, the terrible treatment. That's, by the way, this is one of the things that [Albert] Camus and I had together because Camus is Algerian--considered himself a second-class citizen where France is concerned, and I consider myself as a second-class citizen here. One other thing I didn't tell you is while going to--while with the, the inspector general, I had a chance--he had a 15-minute session with Mahatma Gandhi, and I went with him. He had to leave, and I stayed there two more hours and chatted with Mahatma Gandhi for, for at least two and a half hours.$$Now what did you talk about?$$We talked about: one, segregation and South, and South Africa. Of course, he was segregated tremendously and mistreated, and I talked about how I was mistreated. And--$$Many people don't know that Gandhi was from South Africa.$$Yeah.$$They assume he was from India.$$Yeah, yeah.$$Though he was an Indian, he was a South African Indian.$$South African Indian, yes. But he, he was so--and [Reverend Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.] invited me to talk with him a couple of times. I think I had, I had dinner with him once. But the fact that I had met Mahatma Gandhi, who, who, who was his--you know. That was the man, you know. But I'll tell you, that was a very simple man, very simple. I recall the little, the little bittersweet tea we had, the biscuits, and the little (unclear)--and very simple life. But I think he's one of the persons I admire the most. I admire him. I admire him. I think the people I admire the most, I think my father is one of them, Mahatma Gandhi, [President Anwar] Sadat, whom I, I'd met. And Sadat, at one of the dinners I went to with him, called me his little brother because we both had nappy hair here, you know.$$Anwar Sadat.$$Anwar Sadat.$$President of Egypt.$$Yeah. Just, I--$$Did, did--$$I, I met Malcolm X when he came here. He and I debated in one of, had a little debate 'cause I was an internationalist. And I never believed in, in--I always felt that we were all brothers. That's the kind of stuff that I've always lived with my life, taught to me by my father. We were all brothers. There were many Jewish people that lived near us, and they were all considered brothers as far as my father was concerned. But I, I, I was a part of the organization, or the BLEWS (ph.) here, the blacks and Jews. I worked with them for a very long time. I haven't been able to go out in the last two or three years, but I've been very close to them. And I've always felt that people are my brothers. I, I don't know. I, I grew up with that idea, yeah. But, I was talking about Mahatma Gandhi. It's an impression that lives with you the rest of your life, you know.$$He, he--$$He was killed in 1948 I think. I thought I saw him in '46 [1946], '45 [1945] or '46, when I was with the inspector general.$$Did he have any advice about what black Americans should be?$$You know, all I can recall is our talking about philosophy in general. He, he, he knew that I had one of my majors I had done was philosophy. And we talked about philosophy and the nonviolence and what America should--blacks should do, not become violent, and that eventually there's a cycle, and you overcome with the passage of time.$All right, let me ask you about Haiti. You were a counselor--$$I was consul. I was vice-consul, then became consulate of the Republic of Haiti back in '56 [1956], '57 [1957], and of course I made many trips to Haiti. The language there is spoken by most people is Creole. There are many people in Haiti who don't speak French, but they speak Creole. The, the learned speak excellent French, because many of them go to France to get their degrees. Haiti's a country that I've, I have always admired. First because my teacher, Jean Adam, who is Haitian, because they're, they're a beautiful people, but the one of the most impoverished people, people on, on the face of the earth, very poor and--$$Can, can you speak to the importance of the history of Haiti (unclear)--(simultaneous)--$$Well, you know--$$--the black people in this hemisphere.$$Well, you know, that goes back to the time when the, the French, of course, controlled Haiti. And then there was an uprising when Toussaint Louverture and some of the other great--$$(Unclear)--from Haiti--$$Yeah--$$(Unclear)--all--$$And they, they threw the French out, basically, and they had tremendous problems in the beginning, just as they have tremendous problems now. But I became very close to, to the Haitians, to the president of Haiti and to the ambassador of Hai--in fact, before Papa Doc [Francois Duvalier] came to power. When Papa Doc came to power, I lost my, my position as honorary consul of Haiti. We, we kind of broke off relationships basically with them.$$Papa Doc was the infamous dictator of Haiti--$$He was, he was--$$--Jean-Claude [sic, Francois] Duvalier [Francois' was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude].$$Yeah.$$Yeah.$$And of course I did not go to Haiti during that period of time. In fact, I don't think I've--let's see--no, I haven't been there since then. I, I went two or three times before then, and I was treated royally by the president and--but the people are so warm. And, and you know, the--some of the things there that I saw--I saw--I was invited--because this is rare for a non-Haitian to go to a voodoo ceremony. I've been to several voodoo ceremonies, real ones, where they were, the blood was thrown all over the chicken and everything. And I just--at first I thought this was rather primitive. Then I realized that this was a religion for most of these people based on the Catholic faith and their African legacy. So they took some of that, their African legacy, and mixed it with, with the Catholic faith and, and produced a, a kind of religion, which is voodoo.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis

University professor and author Laurie DeCosta-Willis was born November 1, 1934 in Florence, Alabama to educators Beautine and Frank DeCosta. She grew up in the South but graduated from Westover School in Connecticut and received a B.A. degree, Phi Beta Kappa, from Wellesley College, as well as M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the Johns Hopkins University.

In her forty-year career in education, she has taught at LeMoyne and Owen Colleges (later, at the merged institution for a decade), became the first Black faculty member at Memphis State University in 1966, chaired the Department of Romance Languages at Howard University, was named Commonwealth Professor of Spanish at George Mason University in 1989, and was Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, from which she retired in 1999.

An activist throughout her life, she organized a student protest at Wilkinson High School, joined her mother in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was jailed in Memphis for participating in civil rights demonstrations, campaigned for Black political candidates, led a boycott of Memphis public schools, and joined protest marches in Washington when she lived there in the 1990s.

Co-founder of the Memphis Black Writers' Workshop, DeCosta-Willis has published eight books, including Blacks in Hispanic Literature, Erotique Noire, The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells, Daughters of the Diaspora and, recently, Notable Black Memphians. A columnist, lecturer, consultant, and visiting scholar, she was chair of the Tennessee Humanities Council, associate editor of Sage: A Scholarly Journal of Black Women, and editorial board member of the Afro-Hispanic Review.

In 1955, she married Russell Sugarmon, Jr., a civil rights attorney, and they had four children. Later, she married A. W. Willis, Jr., an attorney, businessman, and first Black elected to the Tennessee Legislature since Reconstruction.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on July 31, 2003.

Accession Number

A2003.173

Sex

Female

Interview Date

7/31/2003

Last Name

DeCosta-Willis

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

Westover School

Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School

Felton Laboratory Charter School

Thaddeus Stevens Observatory School

Alabama State Laboratory High School

Wellesley College

Johns Hopkins University

Speakers Bureau

Yes

Speakers Bureau Availability

Days, weekends

First Name

Miriam

Birth City, State, Country

Florence

HM ID

DEC01

Speakers Bureau Honorarium

No

Favorite Season

Winter

Speaker Bureau Notes

Audience: Any

State

Alabama

Favorite Vacation Destination

Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Favorite Quote

What Goes Around, Comes Around.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Tennessee

Birth Date

11/1/1934

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Memphis

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Paella

Short Description

Civil rights activist and foreign languages professor Miriam DeCosta-Willis (1934 - ) is the first African American faculty member at Memphis State University. Later, she was named professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Romance Languages at Howard University. She is also the cofounder of the Memphis Black Writers' Workshop, and has published eight books and numerous articles.

Employment

Memphis State University

Howard University

LeMoyne-Owen College

George Mason University

University of Maryland, College Park

Favorite Color

Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Miriam DeCosta-Willis' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her mother's personality and recalls a story from her mother's childhood in Hancock County, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes how her maternal great-grandfather acquired land in Hancock County, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about her paternal family history

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about moving around frequently during her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her curiosity about sexuality and religion as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about attending the Thaddeus Stevens Observatory School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about attending laboratory schools affiliated with Alabama State College and South Carolina State University

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about her experience at Wilkinson High School in Orangeburg, South Carolina and the beginning of her language study

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis lists the schools she attended

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis explains how she was able to attend The Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about her experience at the Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes the sight, sounds, and smells of her formative years in Orangeburg, South Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her experience at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts from 1952 to 1956

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis recalls her mother's courage after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s house was bombed in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis gives an example of how race was addressed in her classes at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her experience studying Spanish at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and recalls influential teachers there

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her struggle to find a teaching job in Memphis, Tennessee with only a bachelor's degree

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes civil rights activists in Memphis, Tennessee from 1956 to 1959

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis explains the reason she earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her experience completing her M.A. degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about completing her Ph.D. degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about integrating the faculty of the University of Memphis in 1966 and her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about her campus activism while a professor at the University of Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee from 1966 to 1970, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about her campus activism while a professor at the University of Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee from 1966 to 1970, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about Memphis, Tennessee's black power group, the Invaders

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes joining the faculty at Howard University and discovering Afro-Hispanic literature

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about the development of the study of Afro-Hispanic literature since the 1970s

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her tenure as director of the graduate program in Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes her return to Memphis, Tennessee in 1976 and her tenure at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis from 1979 to 1989

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis explains how she came up with the idea to edit 'Erotique Noire/Black Erotica'

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about the process of publishing 'Erotique Noire/Black Erotica'

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about her published works

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis talks about the books she plans to write

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis reflects upon the current state of the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis reflects upon her life

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis narrates her photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Miriam DeCosta-Willis narrates her photographs, pt.2

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$4

DAStory

2$4

DATitle
Miriam DeCosta-Willis explains how she was able to attend The Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut
Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes joining the faculty at Howard University and discovering Afro-Hispanic literature
Transcript
And I had to repeat the eleventh grade [at The Westover School, Middlebury, Connecticut] because I would not have enough credits in foreign languages to meet their requirements, so I did the eleventh grade twice. But, still finished at age seventeen and I actually finished Westover School [Middlebury, Connecticut]. Now, it was kind of interesting how I got to Westover, this was 1949 [1949] and we're, the Second World War [World War II, WWII] is over and to my way of thinking the Civil Rights Movement really started right after the Second World War because you had all these veterans coming back and really pushing for their rights and things began to open up, so I was kind of on the cusp of that movement. And my parents [Frank DeCosta and Beautine Hubert DeCosta] were very friendly with a woman in Charleston, South Carolina named Ruby Cornwell, very dynamic civil rights pusher, and one of her best friends were Elizabeth Waring, a white woman who was from New England, but who was married to a judge, Judge [Julius] Waties [Waring], J. Waites Waring, who was very important in the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina. Thanks to Elizabeth's influence, her husband became a very outspoken proponent of civil rights, and did, made a lot of legal decisions that enraged people in South Carolina, so, they were a very progressive couple. And Elizabeth graduated from the Westover School, which had never had Negro students and she was very anxious to have someone, and she was looking for the right, she said, young woman. And so, she, she and Ruby [Cornwell] invited my mother and me to come and have lunch with the Warings. And so we, I didn't know what was going on, I just knew we were going to these people's houses. (Laughter) And what surprised me was they had finger bowls and I didn't know what the heck to do with finger bowls. So, anyway it was a very elegant lunch and she was a very gracious lady, et cetera. Next thing I knew, she had decided that I should be the one to go to Westover School. So, the following year, which would have been in 1950, in September of 1950, I went to Westover and by that time she and her husband had left New York, I mean had left Charleston [South Carolina], 'cause basically they had been ostracized by the powers that be there, and so, they were living in New York, and I stopped, she picked me up at the, at the station, train station there, and I stayed with them and then she put me on the train the next day to Westover. And so I kept in touch with them, found out many years later, maybe fifteen or twenty years later, that she had actually paid the scholarship that enabled me to go there, because my parents were teachers not making a whole lot of money and they could not afford to send me to a private school like that, a very exclusive school. When I got there, I found that there was another student from Haiti, who was the daughter of a Russian woman, white; and a black Haitian, and so she was the other girl of color, but she did not really consider herself one of us; and so I virtually was the only black student and it was an interesting experience. It changed my life in a lot of ways, because when I had lived in South Carolina, my ambition was to go to North Carolina State [University, Raleigh, North Carolina] and I'd been very active in basketball and sports, tennis and what not and I wanted to major in physical education, but after going to Westover and being exposed to a much more intensive academic experience, I decided that I wanted to go, I really wanted to go Radcliffe [College, later Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, Massachusetts] and so I made a trip visiting colleges in the area and I got a larger scholarship to Wellesley [College, Wellesley, Massachusetts], so knowing that my parents could not, you know, they needed all the help they could get, I decided that I would go to Wellesley.$Now, let's talk your evolution into an Afro-Hispanic scholar.$$Um, mm.$$Introduction into that type of literature--$$Okay. I left Memphis [Tennessee] in 1970 [1970] and came to Howard [University, Washington, D.C.], and Howard was a watershed experience to me. When I walked on campus, I just fell in love with the place. Here, you had all these scholars from Africa, the Caribbean, South America, all over, John Henry Killens [sic, John Oliver Killens] was there, [HM Haki Madhubuti] was there, Andrew Billingsley was there, I mean, it was just heaven on--. Dorothy Porter was there in the library. Chancellor [James] Williams was right off campus, you know. All these people you'd heard about, it was just fantastic. What, I had been burned out in Memphis, I'd had like fifteen years of, of trying to juggle a husband, a family with four children, my life in, in politics and civil rights, plus my career, et cetera. When I got to Howard I found out that everything could be balled up into one, you know. I could still, you know, maintain my activist principles, but in a scholarly way, (laughter) that was a revelation. So, when I came to Howard, there was a friend, Martha Cobb, who was beginning to do research on the literature of Spanish speaking blacks and there had been a person there, Valaurez Spratlin in Spanish, he was a Puerto Rican, he'd introduce the first course in the Negro and Spanish Literature. Mercer Cook had been chair of my, our department and he was, not only an ambassador, he had written books on Francophone literature and the writers, and what not; and so I began to become very interested. It was the first time I realized that there were Spanish speaking black writers in the Caribbean, Central South America, I mean it was, it just opened up a whole new thing to me. I realized that I had not only been uneducated, but miseducated, because in college and graduate school I had no notion of people like Nicolas Guillen and Nancy Morejon et cetera, so I immediately became interested and started doing research and it was a matter of self-education cause there were no books out there. You, and it was hard to get those books by the writers, you had to either know them or know someone who know them, et cetera because those books were not being published here; so, I became very interested. Martha Cobb and I, and then eventually, Stanley Cyrus and Ian Smart, and others came who had similar interests. And we began developing courses, we began talking terms of publishing, we talked in terms of creating a journal. The Afro-Hispanic Review, which was maybe published ten years later, we began having conferences, we began writing grants to bring these writers like Manuel Zapata Olivella from Columbia and Aldeberto Ortiz from Ecuador, et cetera to bring them to Howard, to give lectures to give readings and things like that. And then we, we tried to work, work cross culturally with Francophone faculty members, writers, critics, et cetera and there were people who were in the English side, so it was, it was just a wonderful time to be alive. And Andrew Billingsley, who was the vice president, at that time, was very supportive of those efforts and would give faculty grants. For example, I got one, I think in 1972 to go to Spain to study to the African presence in, in Spanish culture, and that was funded by this fund that he had, so that it was, and it was a time that when Black studies were developing nationwide. And, of course, Howard had had for many years, courses in Black studies. They had an Afro American Studies Department, they had an African Studies Department, and it was just, it was just a fertile time. There was the Moreland Spingarn Research Center there and there was Dorothy Porter there, who was interested in black writers from Latin America and had acquired books and we would laugh because Dorothy would hide all the good books. You know she'd keep them down under her desk and you'd have to go and say, "Oh, where is the book by Nicolas Guillen?" "Oh, just happen to have it right here," you know. But it was, it was just a wonderful time to be alive and to experience that cross fertilization.