William H. Lewis: Eloquent orator and lauded lawyer

Black History

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

“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.”