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William H. Lewis: Eloquent orator and lauded lawyer

Associated Press | 12/26/2012, 7:37 a.m.
Anthony W. NealThe New York Times called African American...

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.”