Elma Lewis

Elma Lewis (1921-2004)

photo of Elma Lewis

Elma Lewis (1921-2004), who is frequently described as a cultural icon in Boston, founded the National Center for Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) in 1968 eighteen years after opening the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts (ELSFA) in Roxbury. As NCAAA explains, the new center “consisted of professional programs in the visual and performing arts that paralleled the divisions of the ELSFA. Her goal was to bring together in one complex the best in teaching and professional performance, while affirming a populist commitment to arts accessibility and ethnic heritage.” In 1980, NCAAA opened a museum at 300 Walnut Street as a repository for black culture. As Lewis described the project, “It is where we, the blacks, are going to state our black heritage and share our culture and the beauty of our arts with all people black and white alike.”

Elma Lewis was the daughter of Barbadian natives Clairmont and Edwardine Lewis who immigrated to Boston in the early twentieth century. They were followers of Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, whose calls for racial pride and activism inspired the young Elma Lewis. She attended public schools in Boston, including Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls, and studied voice, piano, and dance. Elma Lewis worked her way through Emerson College by acting in local theatrical productions, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1943. The following year, she received a Masters in Education from Boston University where she specialized in the education of exceptional children.

After graduating from BU, Elma Lewis taught speech therapy at the New England Hospital, Massachusetts Mental Health Center, and the Habit Clinic of Boston. She taught fine arts at the Harriet Tubman House, dance and drama at the League of Women for Community Service and the Cambridge Community Center, and staged operas for the Robert Gould Shaw House Chorus, according to the Boston Globe.

She opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury in 1950 to meet the artistic and cultural needs of Boston’s African American young people. More than 6,000 students benefited from her educational institution, many going on to enjoy significant careers in the performing arts. As a three-year-old at the Ruggles Street Nursery School in 1924, her IQ had been measured “as is usual with members of her race, at a higher peak now than it will be when she grows older,” according to the Boston Globe. This kind of racist attitude prompted her to start her own school. “We keep saying there’s a level playing field,” she once told the Globe, “but this nonsense still persists.”

The Globe went on to describe the “vision, commitment, and energy” Elma Lewis used at her school “to pump cultural lifeblood into thousands of other youngsters, gifted or not.” As Lewis herself said, “the point was to make people.” Her “unique teaching program emphasized character-building and multi-disciplinary arts instruction integrated through performance and exhibitions,” according to the NCAAA. Lewis attracted teachers of the highest professional standing, and insisted on a rigorous curriculum. “Our role,” she explained, “is to support anything positive in black life and to destroy anything negative that touches it.”

In 1966, Elma Lewis founded Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, which offered free summer concerts by such leading African American performers as Duke Ellington. She also led a massive clean-up campaign to restore Franklin Park to its original splendor and popular use. Designed by the renowned landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, the park had become rat infested, and strewn with garbage and drug dealers. Today, thanks to the Franklin Park Coalition, the park continues to be well maintained and Elma Lewis’s summer concert series has been brought back.

Elma Lewis founded the NCAAA two years after opening the Playhouse, and she was able to coordinate her new endeavor with the school she had founded. The NCAAA often drew upon students from the ELSFA to populate its performing companies, which toured all over the world. One of the NCAAA’s most popular offerings was an annual production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. The play continues to be offered in Boston today. In terms of the visual arts, thanks to Elma Lewis the NCAAA enjoyed a warm relationship with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and jointly sponsored a number of exhibitions featuring “the finest in African and African American visual arts,” according to the NCAAA. This partnership led to the opening of the NCAAA’s museum.

Among the many honors bestowed upon her, Elma Lewis was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976. In 1981, she received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” and she was awarded the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. She received the Commonwealth Award from the Massachusetts legislature, the state’s highest award in the arts, served on the Congressional Black Caucus, the Metropolitan Cultural Alliance, and the NAACP. She was a trustee and life member of the Boston public television and radio station WGBH, an active member of the Museum of Fine Arts, and a trustee of the Massachusetts College of Art.

Elma Lewis received nearly thirty honorary doctoral degrees including those from Harvard University and Brown University. In 1996, on the occasion of her 75th birthday, thousands of former students, protégés, and admirers enjoyed a three-day celebration at cultural institutions throughout Boston including the Boston Public Library, Museum of Science, and Franklin Park Zoo. Speakers included the poet Maya Angelou and former UN ambassador Andrew Young.

In 2003, the National Visionary leadership Project named Elma Lewis, along with Ray Charles and John Hope Franklin, as a Visionary Elder. As the NCAAA described her vision for the center and beyond, “Miss Lewis, who possessed an extraordinary will partly inspired by Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of self-reliance and nationalism, visualized an artistic and cultural center that would empower and dignify black creative and intellectual development, and celebrate black artistic genius on the world stage. Her life’s work was to establish this dream, through her teaching and through the institutions that she founded. As a visionary, Miss Lewis’s dream was extraordinarily powerful. Tens of thousands were touched directly by her school and the NCAAA performances locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Elma Lewis died in 2004 at the age of 82. Once asked to show her body of work, she responded, “When I leave here, the body of my work will be all these wonderful people out there in the world, doing great things.”

– Bonnie Hurd Smith