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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.”



 Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 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 of “sisters.” “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 one’s wedding. 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 physically. 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 Middle School. 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.”

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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 HOPE/T&D

Source: Times and Democrat /

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)This 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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The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Foreword by Mary Helen Washington. Afterword by Dorothy Sterling

DeCosta-Willis 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


Wells and 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

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

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, and scholar 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'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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.     

Professor Perry 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 Caucasian babies.

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 indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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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 Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 22 May 2006 




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