The New York Times called African American attorney William Henry Lewis “one of the most eloquent pleaders before the Massachusetts Bar.” He was born in Berkley, Va., on Nov. 28, 1868, the son of former slaves Ashley Henry Lewis and Josephine Baker.
He received his early education in the public schools in Portsmouth. After sitting for days in the county courthouse in Berkley, impressed by the oratory of Southern lawyers, he wanted to become an attorney. At the age of 15, Lewis attended the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (VNCI) in Petersburg. He paid his tuition by working as an errand boy in the U.S. Congress and performing odd jobs at local hotels.
Abolitionist and attorney John Mercer Langston, president of the institute, introduced Lewis to U.S. Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts, with whom his connection enabled him in the fall of 1888 to enroll at Amherst College with African Americans William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson, his VNCI classmate, and George Washington Forbes. Lewis distinguished himself as an exemplary scholar and, in his senior year, served as captain of the school’s football team. In fact, he and Jackson became the first two black college football players at a predominantly white college or university.
Lewis was chosen senior class orator, and he won the Hardy Prize debate and Hyde Prize exhibition in oratory during commencement week. W. E. B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, Maud Cuney and Elizabeth Baker, his future wife, traveled to Amherst to attend his graduation ceremony.
In 1892, Lewis enrolled at Harvard Law School. At 5 feet 11 inches tall and just 175 pounds, he played the center rush position on Harvard’s football team, becoming a two-time All-American and one of the best center rushes to ever play on the squad. After his graduation, he authored a 205-page book titled, “A Primer of College Football,” published by Harper & Bros in 1896. Lewis served for 12 years on Harvard’s football coaching staff, during which time the team posted a record of 114 wins, 15 losses and five ties.
Lewis became the fourth African American to graduate from Harvard Law School. He gained admission to the Massachusetts bar in 1895 and set up a law practice at 804 Barristers Hall in Boston, associating with white attorneys John L. Dyer and Albert A. Bridgham. He was president of the Amherst Alumni Association, and a member of the Middlesex Club and the Young Men’s Republican Club of Cambridge.
Twice denied service at a Harvard Square barbershop because of his race, Lewis, assisted by Butler R. Wilson, persuaded the Massachusetts Legislature to amend the state’s public accommodations law. The 1885 law prohibited excluding people from public places of amusement on the basis of race or color. On May 26, 1893, House Speaker George von Lengerke Myer of Boston introduced to the Statehouse a bill aimed at banning racial discrimination in barbershops and “other public places kept for hire, gain or reward.” It was signed into law by Governor William Eustis Russell, a Democrat.
The Legislature amended the law again in 1895, recasting it “in the most comprehensive terms.” As amended, it outlawed “discrimination except for good cause, applicable alike to all persons of every color or race whatsoever, in respect to the admission of any person to, or his treatment in, public places of amusement, other public meetings, inns, barbershops, or public places kept for hire, gain or reward, whether licensed or not.”
In 1896, Lewis married Wellesley College graduate Miss Elizabeth Baker, a Cambridge beauty. They made their home 226 Upland Road, and the couple had two children.
The William Lewis of the 1890s was a provocative orator who demanded civil and political rights for African Americans and disagreed with black leader Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist philosophy. Welcoming the National Convention of Colored Men to the Ebenezer Baptist Church on West Springfield St. on Aug. 10, 1896, Lewis told the delegates, “The Negro unites today to … demand that he be made in reality what he is in name — an American citizen, with all the rights, privileges and immunities appertaining thereto.”
He declared, “We demand the right to live peaceably in our own homes, the right to a fair trial when accused of a crime, the right to be hanged by law, the right to cast one vote and have it counted, the right of access to any and all public places; in fine, all and every right of every other citizen.”
Appealing to the delegates for race unity, Lewis assured them, “United in the righteous cause of civil and political liberty, no power on earth can stand against us.” The Boston Globe reported, “He was enthusiastically received, and his address of welcome was punctuated continually with cheers and applause.”
Lewis believed that a more educated African American would escape the bonds of prejudice, and he thought that black people were entitled to educational opportunity commensurate with their abilities. Speaking at a banquet observing the 91st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, held at Young’s Hotel on Feb. 12, 1900, Lewis said, “We ask you to loosen for us the bonds of ignorance; let the captive mind go free to soar the deep and vast empyrean of human knowledge, and the manacles of prejudice will surely fall away.”
In 1899, Lewis launched a successful bid from Ward 5 for a seat on the Cambridge Common Council. He served through 1901.
After the turn of the century, the tone of Lewis’s rhetoric became more conciliatory, to the chagrin of radicals like Trotter. Instead of agitating for civil and political rights, Lewis expressed guarded optimism about the future of black people in the United States. “We have seen in our day individuals like Douglass, Bruce, Washington and Du Bois attain and partly enjoy perfect equality with the white man. These examples show the possibilities of the masses,” he told a reporter in August, 1901.
Adopting a wait-and-see attitude, Lewis predicted, “The Negro will not always struggle upwards against indifference on one hand and mad prejudice on the other,” for as the “white man in America … grows in civilization and humanity with broader views of life and a higher sense of the obligations of human brotherhood,” he will “welcome the Negro to his equal heirship of American privileges and American opportunity.”
“Though discrimination, disfranchisement and lawlessness … visit upon the Negro today, the pendulum is bound to swing the other way,” Lewis foretold. “The nation’s pride — the people’s conscience — will yet call back to life the dead amendments of the Constitution. This nation cannot endure half democracy and half mobocracy, half civilized and half savage,” he said.
In October 1901, the Ward 5 Committee nominated Lewis to fill a soon-to-be-vacated seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Albert S. Apsey, the occupant of that seat, had announced his intention to run for State Senator. Representing the 5th Middlesex District, Lewis in 1902 served in the Statehouse and as a member of its Judiciary Committee; however, in his bid for re-election on Nov. 4, 1902, Democrat Frederick S. Dietrick defeated him by 134 votes.
During this period, Lewis’s political philosophy underwent a major transformation. “When I realized that there were many good men and women as sincerely devoted to the same cause of man as myself,” he recalled, “I began seriously to examine myself, to ask could they all be wrong and myself only right.”
In his words, Lewis “saw the light and became a friend and follower” of Booker T. Washington, relying on his political influence to secure high-level government employment. Indeed, on Washington’s recommendation, President Theodore Roosevelt directed Henry P. Moulton, U.S. Attorney of Boston, to appoint Lewis 3rd Assistant U.S. District Attorney in January 1903, making him the first African American to hold that position. According to The Associated Press, President Roosevelt directed his appointment “to show that his championing of the Negro was not political and not confined to the Southern states.”
As were other black leaders at that time, Lewis was aware of the South’s lawless lynching record and black disfranchisement; yet he followed Washington’s lead and counseled caution and patience. At an event held at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Cambridge on Sept. 2, 1903, at which Washington spoke, Lewis told a largely black audience, “While it is true that the condition of our people in the South is not what it should be, let us in the North act with sanity and wisdom, that public sentiment in the South may give our brethren better laws and opportunities than they now enjoy. I ask you to be careful and do nothing or countenance anything that will hurt the cause of our brethren there.” He concluded, “The time will come when the whole country will be like Cambridge, a civilized community.”
He was promoted to 2nd Assistant U.S. District Attorney in 1904 and served as head of the New England region of the Bureau of Naturalization from 1907 until 1909. In Oct. 1910, President William Howard Taft announced Lewis’s nomination as the first African American Assistant Attorney General of the United States, the highest office in the executive branch of government offered to any black man then. Despite strong opposition from Southern Senators, he won confirmation in June, 1911.
Washington and Lewis held each other in high esteem and defended one another. In September 1912, Washington wrote, “I with most other colored people believe in, honor and respect Mr. Lewis … because, in the high position in which he has risen, he has neither forgotten his own path nor sought to separate himself from the race to which he belongs.”
On Jan. 30, 1916, Lewis eulogized Washington at a memorial service held at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Columbia Street in Cambridge. He said in part, “Booker Washington was my friend and idol. I loved and worshipped him as no other man I have ever known, save only my own father.”
In 1913, shortly after Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated president of the United States he segregated all federal employees by race and discharged Lewis. Although President Taft recommended him for a judgeship on the Massachusetts Superior Court, Governor Eugene N. Foss refused to appoint him. For Lewis, the political patronage ended. That year he resumed the private practice of law at 294 Washington St. in Boston.
An outstanding criminal defense lawyer, Lewis handled many high profile cases. In the famous Mohr murder trial, he defended pro bono two young black men accused of murdering a Providence doctor on Aug. 31, 1915, and he challenged the impeachment of former Governor’s Councilor Daniel H. Coakley. In 1922, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Charles Ponzi, a financial wizard who defrauded Americans of millions of dollars.
After Washington died on Nov. 14, 1915, Lewis began to repair his damaged relationship with the more radical elements of Boston’s civil rights community. At a federal court hearing before U.S. Commissioner William B. Hayes, Lewis, Richard W. Hale, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and African American attorneys Butler R. Wilson and Charles Lyke Raysor successfully defended John L. Johnson, a black man who fled Charleston, W.Va., after being indicted for violating the White Slave Act. Pleased with the result of that case, Trotter called it “the greatest triumph of justice over lynching in the South ever won.”
About Lewis, The Berkshire Evening Eagle wrote, “Friend to the great and the insignificant, the lawyer devoted his life particularly to the service of defendants who, for lack of money or other reasons, were without legal help.” William Henry Lewis died on Jan. 1, 1949 of a heart attack at the age of 80, leaving a son, William H. Lewis Jr., Esq. of Dedham, and a daughter, Mrs. Pierre Vecken of Paris, France.
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