Beautine DeCosta-Lee

Educator and social worker was active in the civil rights movement, including the Montgomery bus boycott.

December 14, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Beautine DeCosta-Lee, a retired educator and civil rights activist who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at the Kirby Pines retirement community in Memphis, Tenn. The former longtime Northwest Baltimore resident was 95.

Beautine Hubert, the granddaughter of slaves, was born in Hancock County, Ga., and was raised near Savannah.

"Her parents, John Wesley and Lillie Jones Hubert, were educators," said her daughter, Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, an author who lives in Memphis.

"She was also inspired by her grandparents, Camilla and Zacarias Hubert, former slaves, who sent their 12 children to college and built a school in Hancock County," she said.

After graduating from Spelman High School in Atlanta in 1930, she earned a bachelor's degree in three years from Savannah State College in 1933.

She interrupted her graduate studies at Atlanta University to marry Frank DeCosta, an educator, in 1934.

In 1935, the couple moved to Charleston, S.C., when he was appointed principal of Avery Normal Institute and she was a school matron.

They moved to Philadelphia in 1941, when Mr. DeCosta began work on his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and Mrs. DeCosta worked for the Urban League.

In 1942, Mrs. DeCosta earned a master's degree in social work from Atlanta University and pursued further graduate studies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Stanford University, Tulane University and the University of Chicago.

From 1946 to 1952, she was dean of women at South Carolina State before moving with her family to Montgomery, Ala., in the early 1950s, where she taught sociology at Alabama State College.

"One of my most significant memories of my mother is of her participation in the Montgomery bus boycott, which began in 1955," her daughter said. "During my semester break from Wellesley in January 1956, I visited my parents in Montgomery."

Every morning, she recalled, her mother would rise before dawn and drive African-American workers downtown.

"She would pick up workers, maids, day laborers and salespeople on the street corners to take them to work," her daughter said.

Dr. DeCosta-Willis recalled a phone call one evening informing her mother that Dr. King's home on Jackson Avenue had been bombed.

"She flew out of the front door with me at her side and drove quickly to King's house, where a bomb had been thrown into the front room," she said. "A big policeman shouted at the group of 20 or so people who had gathered in front of the house, 'Get back! All you people get back!' "

Mrs. DeCosta steadfastly refused to obey the police officer's orders.

"Mother, who was 5' 4" and weighed 120 pounds, stood her ground. She was the only one who refused to move back," Dr. DeCosta-Willis said. "That was a powerful example to me of courage, and it was an image that I carried with me through my own participation in the civil rights struggle."

In 1957, the couple moved to Baltimore and settled into a home on Elsinore Avenue. Her husband was the founding dean of the graduate school at Morgan State University.

From 1962 to 1963, when her husband was on assignment with the U.S. State Department in Kaduna, Nigeria, Mrs. DeCosta served with the Nigerian Red Cross, volunteered with the Ministry of Social Welfare and organized the International Women's Club.

Mr. DeCosta died in 1968. In 1972, she married Richard Lee, a city school administrator, who died in 1998.

"My mother, a social worker, world traveler and humanist, loved people from different cultures," her daughter said.

Mrs. DeCosta-Lee worked as a social worker for Baltimore City public schools and later was a caseworker for the city welfare department.

At the time of her retirement in 1976, she was regional specialist of pupil services for city public schools.

Mrs. DeCosta-Lee was an avid collector of African-American art, which she donated to Morgan State University.

She was active in Democratic politics, and enjoyed traveling, reading and attending the theater and concerts.

The former Northwest Baltimore resident moved to Washington in 2005, and two years later settled in Memphis to be near her daughter.

In 1999, Mrs. DeCosta-Lee wrote in a letter to her daughter outlining instructions for her funeral.

"By the way, don't let my pastor say a word. I have not spoken to him since 1970 when he was on the wrong side of a political issue," Mrs. DeCosta-Lee wrote. "I go to church regularly (he does preach a good sermon) because I have many church friends to greet, then I go out the side door."

Graveside services will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Arbutus Memorial Park, 1101 Sulphur Spring Road.

Also surviving are a sister, Mamie E. Russell of Silver Spring; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Her son, Frank A. DeCosta Jr., an attorney, died in 1999.

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