Elma Lewis
National Visionary

Born September 15, 1921 in Boston, Massachusetts

Educator and choreographer, founder of the
Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts

Pioneering arts activist and educator, Elma Lewis was born on September 15, 1921 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents, Clairmont and Edwardine Lewis, emigrated from the West Indies and were followers of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The exposure to Garvey’s ideals instilled racial pride in Lewis as a child and influenced her lifelong commitment to promote African culture.

Educated at the Boston Public Schools, Emerson College (B.L.I., 1943), and Boston University School of Education (M.Ed., 1944), Lewis taught dance, drama, and speech therapy. In 1950, she established the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts. Believing in the importance of fostering African American art, the school was established to meet the social, cultural, and artistic needs of Boston’s African American community. Lewis explained, “Our role is to support anything positive in black life and to destroy anything negative that touches it.” During a time of political and racial strife in the 1960s, Lewis sought to bring peace through the school’s “Playhouse in the Park Program,” a summer theater in Franklin Park that featured Duke Ellington and other notable artists.

In addition to the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, Lewis established two more cultural institutions for the performing and visual arts — the National Center of Afro-American Artists in 1968, and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in 1969. All three institutions have enriched the cultural life of African American communities locally and nationally, earning Lewis numerous awards and citations. She was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Prize in 1981 and the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 1983.

She also received numerous honorary doctoral degrees, including an honorary Art.D. degree from Harvard University. Lewis also served as a board member for various prestigious organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Congressional Black Caucus, Metropolitan Cultural Alliance, and NAACP.

Elma Lewis died on January 1, 2004. Her legacy lives on.



URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/lewiselma