Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Black History Month: William H. Lewis

Here's someone I stumbled on late last night looking up some stuff on Jackie Robinson. I knew that Robinson was an All-American football standout and I wondered if he was indeed the first. Turns out, he wasn't (just like he wasn't the first professional Black baseball player) and the guy who was had quite a legacy.

William H. Lewis had a life worth celebrating and it's no surprise that he made history in a region that has been friendly to racial progress in this country: New England. Check the resume of Mr. Lewis in sports and law.

- The first African-American college football player when he suited up at Amherst in 1888. He was noted for his great skill on the field and off the field as an orator and the great W.E.B. DuBois attended his graduation ceremony.

- While attending Harvard Law School, he continued his career and was the first Black All-American college football player in 1892 and 1893 (he was also named Captain of the All-America team in 1893). As a center, he was praised for his quickness, maturity and intelligence and was named Harvard's first Black team captain in his final game. The legendary Walter Camp named him to his All-Time All-American Team in 1900 and hailed him for revolutionizing the position for mobility.

- He became a Harvard assistant coach in 1895-1906 where he helped the defense and offensive line. His defensive strategies helped Harvard go undefeated in 1898 and made him a campus hero. He became the first paid Crimson coach in 1901, wrote one of the game's first books in 1904 and was posthumously inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

- Lewis was regarded as an expert on the game and even contributed a chapter on defense to Camp's annual Bible. Most considered him the leading authority on defense in the country.

- While he was a Harvard assistant, he became the first Black Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1903 thanks to his friendship with President (and noted football fan) Theodore Roosevelt. In 1910, President William Taft added to his firsts by nominating him to be the first Black Assistant Attorney General and Lewis was confirmed despite heavy opposition.

At that time, Lewis had reached the highest government position a Black person ever had. He was on par with Booker T. Washington and DuBois in terms of influence and visibility as an advocate for his race.

- In 1911, he became the first Black member of the American Bar Association. His name was submitted and he was accepted but when the ABA discovered he was Black, he faced a campaign to oust him from the ABA. He refused to resign and he was kicked out in 1912. The decision was condemned in a letter to the membership from U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham.

Until his death in 1949, he remained a passionate advocate for civil rights and for Blacks to become involved in being lawyers. I admit that I had never heard of Lewis before Monday night. But I'm glad that I looked him up and read his biography because he's a fascinating man. A pioneer in sports and law who deserves to be commemorated. Here's more information on him from Harvard.

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