William H. Lewis: Eloquent orator and lauded lawyer

Black History

Anthony W. Neal | 12/27/2012, 11:22 a.m.

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.