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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, a civil rights pioneer who fought for racial and gender equality, has died. She was 86, her family said Thursday.

According to a biography compiled by her family, DeCosta-Willis began challenging the status quo early in life, becoming the first African American to be admitted to the prestigious prepatory school Westover. She graduated top of her class from Wellesley College, and received a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, but was denied admission to Memphis State University in 1957.

In 1966 she became the first African American faculty member at Memphis State.

DeCosta-Willis went on to enjoy a 40-year career in education, teaching at many different institutions including Howard University, LeMoyne-Owen College and George Mason University.

She marched in Washington, D.C., organized student protests, helped lead a boycott of Memphis public schools and participated in the Montgomery bus boycott.

According to her family, DeCosta-Willis died early Thursday while surrounded by family. A cause of death was not released.

Congressmen Steve Cohen released a statement on her death:

“I was saddened to hear of the passing of my friend Miriam DeCosta-Willis, a respected community leader, scholar, educator, legendary glass ceiling-breaker and civil rights pioneer. She was also a great mother of successful children, who are committed to excellence and community-oriented like their parents were. She will be missed.”