About the Syllabus
The Hidden Figures Syllabus project is inspired by our predecessors and by the recent film adaptation of the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures, about three Black women mathematicians, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, who were instrumental in NASA’s early operations. The film won the 2017 Screen Actor Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
The concept of a “hidden figure” is compelling because it provides an opportunity to uncover the histories of individuals who have been obscured by history and to complicate the notion of who is “hidden.” The Hidden Figures Syllabus will recognize and celebrate powerful Black women from across the African diaspora, whose work is often erased from history. The syllabus will consist of a list of texts, films and audio materials by and about Black women and will work as a living archive for the continued remembrance of those on whose shoulders we stand.
Who was Elma Lewis?
Born in Boston to parents who had emigrated from Barbados, Elma Ina Lewis financed her education by acting in local theater productions, graduating from Emerson in 1943, and earning a Masters in Education from Boston University the following year. Ms. Lewis went on to teach drama, dance, and speech therapy.
- In 1950, Lewis opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury to promote arts and communication education for Boston’s African American youth.
- In 1966, Lewis founded Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, offering free summer performances that were revived in recent years continuing her work and her legacy.
- In 1968, Lewis founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), which brought students from the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts to tour in stage productions on a national level.
- Lewis was one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 1981
After a lifetime of service, Elma Lewis passed away on New Year’s Day, 2004. She was the recipient of over 400 awards and 28 honorary degrees. Her former students continue in her footsteps all over the United States, many of them working in the performing arts in Boston.
Ms. Lewis was committed to providing artistic opportunity for young Black children in Roxbury and Greater Boston, and to improving the world around her, one person at a time.
About the Elma Lewis Center
The Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research was established in September 2013 as a coordinating hub for civic engagement at Emerson College and as a bridge builder to better connect the college’s strengths in communication and the arts to support social change. The Elma Lewis Center is housed within the Division of Diversity and Inclusion and consistent with Emerson’s commitment to inclusive excellence, the Elma Lewis Center seeks to encourage the college community to be active citizens engaging with diverse communities on a local, national, and global scale.
Visit our website to learn more about our work.
(Header image of Mary Jackson Courtesy of NASA)
(Image of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson: NASA/Donaldson Collection/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images via HowStuffWorks)
(Image of Hidden Figures cast courtesy of Hopper Stone for 20th Century Fox, 2016)