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Black history month

Elma Lewis brought Boston’s thriving Black arts scene to the national stage

Elma Lewis was congratulated as a 'Heroes Among Us' award recipient at the Great Hall in the State House in 1999. Lewis founded the Elma Lewis school, an arts school for the young. Her grand-nephew Milton Corbin, center, stood with her.Max Becherer

This Black History Month, the Globe is saluting people who have made a difference in Massachusetts.

With $300, 12 beat-up folding chairs, and two used pianos, Elma Lewis took a risk and opened her own school.

Trained in the fine arts and education, Lewis wanted to not only steer Black children toward a better future but also help them “develop their artistic gifts.”

Opened in 1950, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury helped more than 6,000 students unleash their artistic potential and placed Roxbury’s cultural contributions on the nation’s radar. An arson fire forced the school’s closure in 1986.


Lewis crafted a rigorous curriculum, with high expectations of her pupils.

“She terrorized people,” one mother said of her daughter’s experience at the school. “But she did it for their own good.”

Born in Roxbury in 1921, Lewis took voice, piano, and dance lessons as a child. She attended school in Boston before earning degrees from Emerson College and Boston University.

Elma Lewis in 1966.Gilbert E. Friedberg/Globe Staff

Lewis rallied support from powerful benefactors and politicians to found the National Center of Afro-American Artists in 1968. The center showcases and fosters the artistic contributions of the African American community through classes and exhibits.

She often told the Globe that opening such an institution was “where reconciliation begins.”

Lewis was a persistent champion of Black self-reliance. Her Barbadian parents instilled Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s teachings into her at an early age.

“Our society has designed a system of control to make sure that the landed gentry will stay in control,” she told the Globe in 1972. “The time has come that we Black people must ... develop our own institutions.”

In 1981, she became one of the first woman recipients of the MacArthur “genius grant.” President Ronald Reagan awarded her a Presidential Medal for the Arts in 1983.


She died of pulmonary complications from diabetes at age 82 in 2004.

“When I leave here, the body of my work will be all these wonderful people out there in the world, doing great things,” Lewis told the Globe in 1996.

Elma Lewis sat in her parlor in 1996.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at Follow her @tianarochon.