Let’s take a poll…did you know about Elma Lewis before reading this blog post?
Born in Boston on September 15, 1921 to parents from Barbados, Lewis was an accomplished woman for her generation. She graduated from Emerson College, class of 1943 and then completed graduate studies at Boston University. An institution builder for the city of Boston, she established the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts for Black children and youth in 1950. By 1968, she created the National Center for Afro American Artists, and a year later the Museum of the National Center for Afro American Artists. These institutions were crucial to the formation of several musicians, dancers, performers, and artists of all stripes in Boston and beyond. Miss Lewis also contributed to the development of two neighborhood traditions, the summertime Playhouse in the Park and the annual holiday production, Black Nativity. For her commitment to community and vision for the Black Arts Movement, Lewis received numerous honorary degrees, citations and awards. In fact, she was one of the first women to receive the inaugural MacArthur Genius Award Prize in 1981 and in 1983, received the National Medal for the Arts. Despite her many esteemed accomplishments, I still find that many students, faculty, staff, alumni and the general public including native Bostonians don’t know about life and legacy of Miss Lewis. As such, I could argue that Elma Lewis is a hidden figure. But how can someone with such a rich legacy be hidden? While Miss Lewis’s intellectual, creative and civic contributions are vast, it is clear from the informal poll I have conducted that she has been obscured by history. I find this ironic because in her 1976 Independence Day oration she states,
“The true patriot, the new patriot, has committed his energies not to the preservation of old myths, but to the development of new truths. He has committed himself to the task of rewriting the history books. The true patriot has determined not only to record and use as examples the exploits of John Hancock, …George Washington, and Peter Faneuil, but also to record and use the stories of such brilliant and industrious men as Amos Fortune, a black slave who by his own industry secured his freedom and became a prosperous merchant. It is essential for every resident of this country to understand the size and quality of contribution that every other American has made before all can feel a shared responsibility and a common purpose. Let us work with a passionate will to develop true historic records.”
Miss Lewis reminds us about our own history and the importance of documenting it. In the age of “alternative facts” and digital media, we need to be even more determined about documenting our histories and experiences because they will either be erased like the White House webpages on civil rights or not even considered. I see our Hidden Figures Syllabus Project a direct response to Miss Lewis’ call to ‘develop true historic records.’ Through this project she and other women of color will be celebrated.
Judy Pryor-Ramirez is the Elma Lewis Scholar-in-Residence at the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, & Research. She is the co-author of Voices of Mixed Heritage, a digital curriculum for teachers about race, cultural hybridity and mixed race heritage. Follow her on tweets about #BlackGirlMagic and other musings at @JPryorRamirez.