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Erma Lee Laws: pioneer activist, writer, educator

The colorful landscape of African-American society in Memphis in the 1950’s garnered respect and distinction, thanks largely to the vision and insight of one woman – Erma Lee Laws, according to those who were close.

The colorful landscape of African-American society in Memphis in the 1950’s garnered respect and distinction, thanks largely to the vision and insight of one woman – Erma Lee Laws, according to those who were close. Laws passed Monday afternoon (April 9) at Methodist University Hospital. She was 81.

 Erma Lee Laws

“Erma started with the Sengstacke family back in the very early days at the Tri-State Defender,” said Wiley Henry, former assistant editor and graphic artist for the newspaper.

“She wrote the society column and edited the Lifestyle page. Back in the day when blacks were excluded from Cotton Carnival festivities 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.”

Mrs. Laws is also remembered by other close friends as a political force, community advocate and loyal confidante.

“During my 22 years as congressman for the 9th District in Tennessee, Erma was known by so many as a columnist for the prominent Tri-State Defender over four decades, but she was also a beloved educator of Memphis City Schools,” said former Congressman Harold Ford Sr. “If you were not mentioned in Erma’s column, you knew you had not arrived yet.”

“Erma became part of our family over Sunday dinners, political events and treasured conversations over the years,” said Ford. “I join with Erma’s many other close friends and family in saying that we love her and will miss her.”

Ford, whose family is a leader in the Memphis funeral industry, recounted a visit he had with Mrs. Laws just before she passed. He shared that Laws asked him to take care of final arrangements in case something happened to her. Ford said when he replied that he didn’t want to talk about that yet, Laws shot back, “Well maybe I need to call Lewis and Sons (a Ford family competitor) or somebody.” Ford said they both got a big laugh out of that.

“Her spirits were high, and she was the indomitable Erma Laws until the very end. I’m going to miss my friend.”

‘She knew her time was near’

“I got a call from Erma Sunday morning about eight,” said Henry. She told me, ‘Wiley, I’m going to go ahead and have the heart procedure done.’ She was having severe heart palpitations, and she suffered from congestive heart failure.

“About two that (Monday) afternoon, I received a call that she didn’t make it. I was really stunned and saddened to hear that. Erma and I became close when I joined the Tri-State Defender staff back in 1984. She had already been with the paper for more than 30 years.”

Henry said he learned a vast amount from “Erma.”

“We all understood that she knew how important and how relevant the black press was to the African-American community. Erma knew that her stories were recording an invaluable social history of Memphis’ black elite. She gave value to those who tried to improve our quality of life through social and civic endeavors. We have all lost a great woman,” said Henry.

“I am convinced that she had some sense that it might be the last time she would speak to me. Erma’s heart was so weak. I will always cherish that last conversation with her.”

‘I’m just so tired’

Randy Wade, special assistant to Congressman Steve Cohen, said Mrs. Laws had been in the hospital for several days before he learned of that development.

“I was dealing with my own health issues at the time. But I spoke with her two days before she passed,” said Wade.

“We became close from the ’70s and ’80s when Erma started a promotion for the newspaper. Readers were asked to vote on ‘The Mayor of Beale Street.’ I was elected one year, and she held the Bible while I took the oath of office.”

Wade said he often referred to Mrs. Laws as “my second wife. Everybody knew I had two wives. We would go to lunch often and talk several times a week. I called Erma last week and told her I was on my way to the hospital. She said, ‘Randy, I don’t want you to come. I’m just so tired. I’ve been in therapy all day. I just want to rest. I’m so tired of the pain.”

Mrs. Laws, said Wade, “endured excruciating pain day after day in her legs. I had seen her suffering over the years. There was just something about the way she said, ‘I’m just so tired.’ That was our last conversation. My heart is heavy with grief.”

‘A real nice funeral’

“Erma and I talked to each other every day for many years. I wanted to visit her in the hospital, but she told me not to come,” said longtime friend Minerva Johnican. “When she told me she was going to go ahead and have the heart surgery, I asked her how she felt about it. Erma said she had talked to a priest – because she was Catholic, and she had talked to God.”

Johnican said her friend had a peace about the whole situation.

“We talked about making pre-arrangements for her funeral because there was nothing in place. This was three days before she passed. Erma said she wanted a mahogany casket with a rosary on it.

“I want a real nice funeral, Minerva, a real nice funeral,” Johnican recalled.

“Erma told me to wait until she came home to visit her. She never made it home. I think she knew.”

Services will be at noon Thursday (April 12) at St. Augustine Church, with burial will to follow in Elmwood Cemetery. N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home.


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