South City

Black Memphis, Black History: The legacy of A.W. Willis

[This four-part series celebrates Black History Month with short profiles on influential Black Memphians.]

Archie Walter “A.W.” Willis, Jr. left an undeniable mark on Memphis through his work as an attorney, businessman, civil rights leader, and community builder.

His family has also been and continues to be a driving force for justice and prosperity in the Bluff City. 
“My aim always was to leave things better than they were."
—A. W. Willis


Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama on March 16, 1925.

His family relocated to South Memphis when Willis was an infant. Willis' father, Archie, Sr., co-founded the Memphis-based Universal Life Insurance Company, which he helped grow into one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in the country.

The junior Willis graduated from Booker T. Washington High School before served his country in World War II. After the war, Willis earned a bachelor’s degree from the historically Black liberal arts school Talladega College in 1950, followed by a law degree from The University of Wisconsin in 1953.

When Willis returned to Memphis after graduating law school, he immediately began to rack up a list of historic firsts. 

He helped opened the city's first integrated law firm in the mid-1950s—Ratner, Sugarmon, Lucas, & Willis.

In 1964, he became the first African American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly since the Reconstruction period post-Civil War. He then made a bid for the Memphis mayoral seat in 1967.

While that run was unsuccessful, Willis was instrumental in the election of Harold Ford, Sr. to the U.S. Congress in 1975. Ford was the first African American to represent Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Willis died in Memphis in 1988.

Auction Avenue and the Auction Avenue Bridge in the Uptown-Pinch area of Downtown Memphis were renamed A.W. Willis Avenue and A. W. Willis Memorial Bridge in his honor. Mayor Dick Hackett dedicated the bridge in 1987 while the street was renamed in 2008. 

The Fight for Civil Rights
Willis is well-known for his work during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s.

He served as legal counsel for the NAACP in the 60s and defended sit-in demonstrators. When James Meredith became the first Black person to applied for admission to the University of Mississippi, Willis was the counsel of record.

After winning that case in 1962, Meredith would go on to inspire the largest civil rights march in Mississippi history.

Willis worked to desegregate Memphis City Schools and The University of Memphis, where he advised the Memphis State Eight. Those students were the first to integrate the campus.

Related: "Beyond the Memphis State Eight: The civil rights fight for equality at the University of Memphis"

Willis also served on many boards and commissions, including Tennessee’s first Human Rights Commission and the National Civil Rights Museum Commission.

Housing justice was a big theme across Willis' work.

He co-founded Mutual Federal Savings and Loan in 1955. The Willis family founded Supreme Mortgage & Realty Co., which was the first Black-owned mortgage company in the South.

Willis helped drum up funding for the Tennessee Housing Development Agency and served on the Shelby County Housing Task Force. He was also an advocate of the county's Homebuyer’s Revolving Loan Fund, which helped low- and moderate-income Memphis buy their first home. 

A Family Affair
Willis and his family lived in South City, which sits at the far northwest corner of South Memphis on the boarder of Downtown.

Willis had five children, several of whom have also engaged in making Memphis a better city.

In recent years, Archie Willis, III, has been a driving force behind the redevelopment of South City, including its mixed-income apartment development which replaced the Foote Homes housing project.

Related: "The last major vestige of segregation-era housing set for demolition"
Related: "Seeing Red: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis"

Daughter Rosalyn Willis serves as the president of the Community Redevelopment Agency, where she works to improve conditions in Memphis neighborhoods. Son Marc Wills has been instrumental in the education and youth development efforts in the city, including serving as the first executive director of the Stax Music Academy.

Willis' second wife, Miriam DeCosta-Willis, was also a civil-rights powerhouse. She was a prolific author and esteemed educator. Among her many achievements, DeCosta-Willis was the first Black faculty member at the University of Memphis, which was then Memphis State. Ironically, the school denied her entrance as a student just nine years prior because of her race.
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Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.