Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers
Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon
Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) /
Erotique Noire/Black Erotica
( 1989) /
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Ties that bind
‘The Big Five’
get together for first time in 51 years
By Richard Walker
Monday, May 15, 2006
It began 60 years ago, and unlike
other friendships, time has served only to strengthen
the ties that bound these five childhood friends.
Through the years, the five former school girls have
kept in touch while still going their individual ways.
They call themselves “The Big Five,” and they gathered
in Orangeburg recently for, as they called it, a reunion
“This is the first time since 1955 that all five of us
have been in the same room,” Carolyn Harris Brown said.
“There’s been four of us together since then,” said
Miriam DeCosta-Willis. “But not all five.”
And the time four of “The Big Five” got together, Brown
said she had to leave her honeymoon to be at another
They were childhood friends and classmates at Felton
Training School on the campus of State A&M College
(today’s South Carolina State University).
Each lived only a block away from one another on the
campus grounds, and three of the girls’ families even
shared what some may remember as a “party” line, a
single telephone line that was used in multiple
residences. Their number — 1111.
“We could've gone into the yard and talked,” Brown said,
“but the telephone was a new thing.”
In addition to Brown and Willis, The Big Five is made up
of Barbara Thompson Townsend, Carolyn Webber Thomson and
Barbara Williams Jenkins.
Of the five, only Townsend has remained in Orangeburg.
The rest were carried on life’s wings to Columbia,
Manning, Tennessee and New York.
Thomson is a medical pathologist while the others have
retired from similarly successful careers. Brown retired
as music superintendent of Richland School District I,
Jenkins retired as head librarian at SCSU, the author of
eight books, Willis retired as a college professor, and
Townsend retired as an art teacher.
It was 1946 Orangeburg when the girls were growing up as
the children of college faculty. In addition to the
usual classes, there were operettas to attend, piano
recitals, tennis and swimming lessons. Such was the
benefit of growing up on the campus.
Looking back, however, the women say they see themselves
as living in a “cocoon,” a life sheltered from the world
segregated outside of the campus.
“When we went outside the campus, we had to sit upstairs
at the movie theater,” Willis said, “or we wouldn’t be
allowed to try on the ladies’ hats at Belk’s.”
They eventually went on to Wilkinson High School where
they became gray and maroon “Wolverines.” There was the
“Dawn Dance,” junior and senior proms, and what the
girls consider the high point of high school, the
“Hi-Light Social Society Dance.”
It was during this time that the girls served as
counselors at State’s Elloree youth facility, Camp
Daniels, where they were paid $5 a week in salary.
“We had a good time,” Jenkins said.
In an atmosphere unique to such gatherings — laughter,
recollection, knowing looks — it wasn’t hard to realize
the ladies have led colorful lives.
“Now, we’re not going to tell about the time Barbara
wrecked the tractor?” Brown said.
“And we’re not going to tell about the purple Jesus,
either!” Willis said, referring to an alcoholic
concoction popular on campuses in their day.
After high school, however, like the individual threads
of a rope, the girls’ paths began to separate.
South Carolina State College, Benedict College and
Wellesley College parted the childhood friends, at least
The segregated United States of the 1950s assured
further separation when the girls weren’t allowed
enrollment at in-state schools. Local schools, including
the University of South Carolina, paid for black
students to attend out-of-state schools, the women said.
But that didn’t stop the young women from making the
most of themselves. Of the group, two obtained doctorate
degrees, two obtained masters degrees, and one received
a medical degree.
“All of them were high achievers after college, very
representative of the community,” said former Wilkinson
assistant principal Robert E. Howard, namesake of Howard
About 30 acquaintances of The Big Five from Felton,
State and Camp Daniels joined in for their reunion
celebration Thursday, a time for laughter, a time for
reminiscing, a time for friends.
“I think it’s a Southern thing, it’s the culture,”
Townsend said. “It’s ties that bind.”
* * *
Photo Above: Christmas
cards, calls and letters held a 60-year friendship
together in the interim. But Thursday Christmas cards,
calls and letters held a 60-year friendship together in
the interim. But Thursday marked the first time in more
than 50 years that five childhood friends, who call
themselves “The Big Five,” had been together. Pictured
from left, standing, Barbara Thompson Townsend,
Dr. Barbara Williams Jenkins, Dr. Miriam De
Costa Willis. Seated from left, Carolyn Harris
Brown and Dr. Carolyn Webber Thomson. VAN
Times and Democrat
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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam
biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD,
Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty
member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major
Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social
and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions,
and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their
community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were
born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical
sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others),
such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B.
Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr.,
writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles
Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or
lived in the city for over a decade. . . .
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makes it possible to look back in a new way into the
character of wells, and, more than that, into the daily
life of African-Americans a century ago.— Chicago Tribune
DeCosta-Willis join together across time in a scholarly
collaborative dance of sisterhood to produce a work that
not only holds an insightful mirror to the past, but
could be used as a guidepost for African-American and
other women today in living totally self-defined lives.—Tri-State Defender
A unique look
at the life o an independent, unmarried African-American
woman coping with financial hardships, romantic
entanglements, sexism, and racism . . . A substantial
contribution to African-American Studies—Publisher Weekly
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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America. This
collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked
together to promote, disseminate, and critique the
literature of Spanish-speaking people of African
descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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posted 22 May 2006