Obituary: Margaret Bush Wilson, WUSTL trustee emerita, civil rights attorney, 90

Margaret Bush Wilson, WUSTL trustee emerita, prominent civil rights attorney in the 1960s and the first woman of color to chair the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), died Tuesday, Aug. 11, after a short illness. She was 90.

Margaret Bush Wilson

Wilson, the second woman of color admitted to practice law in Missouri, served on WUSTL’s Board of Trustees from 1978 until her death and was a charter member of the Arts & Sciences National Council. She was an active member of both, serving on the honorary degree committee for the Board of Trustees.

Wilson was a longtime civil rights activist and attorney. She was actively involved with the NAACP, serving nine terms as chair of its board of directors. She also served as U.S. attorney for the legal division of the rural electrification administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and assistant attorney general of Missouri.

“We feel so very fortunate for Margaret Bush Wilson’s many contributions to Washington University,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “She has a remarkable life story, and the world is a better place because of her steady, unwavering commitment to social justice and equality. Margaret will be deeply missed by those of us who have benefited from her friendship and wise counsel.”

Wilson also was a member of the advisory board for the American Culture Studies Program in Arts & Sciences. The Margaret Bush Wilson Professorship in Arts & Sciences — held by John Baugh, Ph.D., director of the African & African American Studies Program and professor of psychology, both in Arts & Sciences — recognizes her outstanding contributions to society and to Washington University.

“Margaret Bush Wilson was one of the most exceptional people I have ever met,” Baugh said. “Few Americans will ever leave a comparable legacy of the profound wisdom, kindness, generosity, compassion and visionary leadership that she contributed to St. Louis, America, the NAACP and the entire world.”

“She made me feel like a long-standing member of her family, and I will sorely miss her friendship and timely sage advice,” Baugh said.

Wilson was born in St. Louis Jan. 30, 1919, and graduated with honors from Sumner High School in St. Louis. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, cum laude, from Talladega College and a bachelor of laws degree from Lincoln University School of Law (now merged with the University of Missouri School of Law).

During her junior year in college in 1938, Wilson was selected as a Juliette Derricotte Fellow. As a fellow, Wilson spent six months in India at Visva Bharati College, where she met Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Ghandi. She was particularly influenced by Ghandi.

Wilson managed a St. Louis law firm, now Wilson & Associates, for more than 40 years. In addition to practicing law in St. Louis, she was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and was a member of the Bar of the State of Illinois. Wilson received the Distinguished Lawyer Award from the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis in 1997.

Wilson also served as legal services specialist, State Technical Office, War on Poverty; administrator, Community Service and Continuing Education Programs, Title I, Higher Education Act of 1965 in the Missouri Department of Community Affairs; acting director and deputy director of St. Louis Model City Agency; assistant director, St. Louis Lawyers for Housing; and instructor, civil procedure, CLEO Institute, Saint Louis University School of Law.

She is past board chair of two historically African-American institutions, Saint Augustine’s and Talladega colleges, and has served on numerous boards for national companies and nonprofit organizations, including those of Monsanto Co., Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, American Red Cross and United Way. She also was trustee emeritus at Webster University.

She has received many honorary degrees, including an honorary doctor of laws degree from Washington University in 1978 and others from Talladega College, Boston University and Smith College.

Wilson is survived by her son, Robert E. Wilson III; her daughter-in-law, Denise; grandchildren Gabriel and Leonardo; her sister, Ermine Bush Byas; nieces and nephews Diane, Timothy, Jordan, Nicholas and Bahiyyah Muhammad; other grandnieces and grandnephews; and friends.

Visitation will be held from 9-11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 18 at All Saints Episcopal Church at 2831 N. Kingshighway, St. Louis, MO 63115. The funeral is at 11 a.m. There will be a reception after the service in the church to celebrate Wilson’s life. Burial will be private.

Donations in Wilson’s memory to Talladega College, the United Negro College Fund or the national NAACP office may be sent to Att: Robert Wilson, 4200 W. Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63113, or directly to each organization on behalf of Margaret Bush Wilson.