Tri-State Defender Columnist, Erma Lee Laws, Dies at 81 |
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A journalist, teacher and smiling presence in the life of many Memphians passed away this week. Erma Lee Laws, a long time columnist for the Tri-State Defender, died at Methodist University Hospital on Monday, April 9. For decades, Erma Laws chronicled the social life of African-Americans in Memphis and the Mid-South. A former colleague at the Tri-State Defender, Wiley Henry, told the newspaper, "she wrote the society column and edited the Lifestyle page. Back in the day when blacks were excluded from Cotton Carnival and other mainstream events, Erma wrote about the people and occasions that gave us our own social identity. She gave us something to be proud of. Something all our own." A graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College, Laws devoted a significant number of years to teaching. She started as a special education teacher at Georgia Avenue Elementary in South Memphis and later moved to Bruce Elementary on Bellevue in Midtown where she met the children of the Abraham family, immigrants from Erirea, a country in the Horn of Africa. The big hearted educator helped the Abrahams adjust to life in the United States and loved the family has as her own.
Born in Memphis on July 16, 1930, Laws attended St. Augustine High School, graduating in 1948. After attending Wayne State University in Detroit and graduating from LeMoyne Owen, Laws went to work as an assistant to noted Memphis business and civic leader Lt. George W. Lee, a Republican writer and orator who had first gained notoriety for serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in France during World War I. Laws deeply appreciated Lee's mentoring and attributed her success as a journalist and organizer to lessons learned from Lt. Lee. Laws, however, did not share his political views. She was a staunch Democrat and one of U.S. Representative Harold Ford, Senior's closest friends and advisers during his 22 years in the U.S. Congress. Ford told the Tri-State Defender, "Erma became part of our family over Sunday dinners, political events and treasured conversations over the years."
Throughout her life, Laws devoted her efforts at helping young people. She started the Memphis chapter of Co-Ettes, Inc., a social organization for teenage girls. She founded the Memphis chapter of a national organization called The Girl Friends, Inc., a group that serves social and benevolent causes. During the civil rights movement, Laws became a board member of a group called C.O.M.E. which stands for Community on the Move for Equality. It was founded by pastors and civil rights leaders to support Memphis Sanitation workers during their strike. C.O.M.E. was the organization that brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis in 1968. Laws testified for the NAACP Civil Defense Fund during the Civil Rights Movement and worked as a liaison for reporters during the sanitation workers strike. Laws was one of the original board members of the National Civil Rights Museum and also served on the board of the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library system. A witness to so much history of the mid-20th century, Laws was co-editor and researcher for the Memphis African American Historical Calendar. 10,000 copies were given to Memphis City Schools to educate and inspire young people. A devoted member of the Roman Catholic church, Laws was a close friend of the first black priest in Tennessee, Father James P. Lyke who went on to become Archbishop of Atlanta. Lyke invited Laws to the Vatican in Rome in 1991 and witnessed Lyke's ordination as Archbishop. Laws funeral was held on Thursday, April 12 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception where she had been a member for many years.