The Civil Rights History Project: Survey of Collections and Repositories
A. W. Willis, Jr. collection
Repository: Memphis Public Library & Information Center
Collection Description (CRHP): A World War II veteran, A. W. Willis, Jr., was one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement in Memphis. He was a lawyer and businessman, particularly involved with housing matters. As a member of the legal team of the local National Association for the Advancement for Colored People branch, he was involved with civil rights lawsuits and defended the sit-in demonstrators in Memphis. He also served on James Meredith's legal counsel when Meredith sought to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1961. In Memphis, one of Willis's children was one of the first to desegregate schools in the city. Willis also was highly involved in politics and a leader of both the powerful local black political club the Shelby County Democratic Club and statewide Tennessee Voters Council, an African American political organization. In 1964, he became the first African American elected to the Tennessee legislature in the 20th century. Three years later, he made a bid to be mayor of Memphis though he was unsuccessful. Although this collection does not contain any formal oral histories of Willis, it does include a transcript of a 1982 interview that Dr. Miriam DeCosta Willis conducted of Willis's aunt, Beatrice Willis Smith, about her life in Mississippi. In addition, Box 9 contains a video made after his death. It includes footage of interviews of Willis, his children, his friends, and his associates as well as a testimonial dinner held for him in 1987 that many African Americans active in civil rights attended.
Collection Description (Extant): The A. W. Willis, Jr. Collection was donated to the Memphis Public Library and Information Center by Willis's widow, Dr. Miriam DeCosta Willis on January 10, 2003. Comprised of ten boxes, this collection contains correspondence, newspaper clippings, programs, reports, and other documents relating to Willis's public and private life starting in the early 1950s and continuing after his death in 1988. The collection also contains an impressive amount of photographs. There are five boxes of photographs ranging from family snapshots and portraits to landmark events in Memphis's Civil Rights Movement. There are several photographs done by Ernest Withers, famous for his Civil Rights photography.
The collection contains information on several topics in Memphis and in Tennessee including: Memphis Civil Rights history; Willis's political career; Memphis and Tennessee politics in the 1960s and 1980s (particularly Dick Hackett's 1986 campaign for Mayor and Ned McWherter's 1986 campaign for Governor); the National Democratic Convention; the operation of Willis's various businesses; the failed merging of the Church of God in Christ and LeMoyne-Owen College; Beale Street Development; Church Park; the founding of the National Civil Rights Museum; and family information including various wills and trusts.
Access Copy Note: A finding aid that contains annotated descriptions of each folder is available for access at the Memphis and Shelby County room. An image of it and some information from it is available at the collection URL listed below.
Collection URL: http://memphislibrary.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p13039coll1/id/424
Digital Status: No
Extent: 10 boxes
Interviewees: Beatrice Willis Smith, A. W. Willis, Jr.
Rights (Extant): Permission to reproduce or publish this item is required and may be subject to copyright or other legal restrictions imposed by parties outside of the Library. Please contact the History Department of the Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
African American businesspeople
African American lawyers
African American political activists--Tennessee
African American politicians--Tennessee
African Americans--Civil rights--Tennessee
Civil rights movements--Tennessee
Meredith, James, 1933-
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Tennessee--Politics and government