Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s only public performing and visual arts high school, officially named its new school building after Elma I. Lewis, a pioneering local arts teacher and advocate, school officials announced at a ceremony Wednesday.
The nearly 500-student Boston Arts Academy opened the new building before the start of the 2022-23 academic year, just steps away from Fenway Park. The announcement makes the Lewis building the fourth Boston Public School building named after a Black woman.
The Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, an organization that provides information about the women who have made lasting contributions to the City of Boston, first raised the issue that “there are too few schools in the city that are named after prominent women,” said Anne Clark, the head of school.
“We’re proud that we are, in part, correcting that today,” Clark said.
Lewis, who was born in 1921 and died in 2004, was the founder of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury.
“Dr. Lewis was adamant about ensuring that young Black artists had the same opportunities to not only hone their skills and expand their repertoire, but to share those gifts with the world and to be celebrated for them,” Mayor Michelle Wu said at the ceremony. “She knew that the arts were a vehicle for joy and healing, and worked to make it a powerful tool in the hands of those seeking to build a more just society.”
Lewis worked for decades to create accessible opportunities and advocate for more equitable arts instruction “so that young people and those from underserved communities experienced the joy and freedom that comes from creativity,” Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper said.
“Her name will forever be in the minds of the BAA community,” Skipper said. “Students and staff will ensure that her example remains a guiding star long into the future after they leave this building.”
The decision to name the building after Lewis received unanimous approval from the Boston School Committee and has been in the works since last fall, Skipper said, adding that the process was the “natural step” to formalize her memory. But really, according to Clark, the naming is a “culmination of a long legacy” that intertwines Lewis’s work and the mission of BAA.
Since Boston Arts Academy opened in 1998, Clark said, the school has honored graduates in Lewis’s name annually with the Elma Lewis Graduates of Distinction award.
Lewis’s work has touched thousands of students’ lives spanning multiple generations, including Jeri Robinson, chair of the Boston School Committee and a former student of Lewis’s.
“It’s a surreal moment to stand in front of this school, knowing the letters on this building speak about a past that is familiar to me, and a future that is so bright for our students,” Robinson said.
Shaumba-Subira Dibinga-Robinson, a junior at the school, works as an instructor at OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center, a youth dance studio inspired by Lewis and founded by her mother, Shaumba-Yandje Dibinga.
Dibinga-Robinson called Lewis’s legacy as an educator “unmatched,” describing her as a “woman who possessed the grace, grit, and determination to break barriers and uplift our culture.”
Lewis’s work throughout her career earned her national and international recognition as a recipient of one of the first MacArthur Fellows Grants the Presidential Medal for the Arts from Ronald Reagan.
“I got to watch her in her element. She was just a force — a marvelous force,” recalled Kafi Meadows, Lewis’s grand niece, who described Lewis as a second mother whose “superpower was really inspiring young people” through the arts.
Meadows said she hoped the students who pass by Lewis’s name in block letters as they enter school each morning will take a moment to pause, learn, and become empowered by Lewis’s message.
“She had a gift to make things happen that you didn’t think could happen, to move mountains,” Meadows said.
Correction: Due to a reporter error, an earlier version of this story misstated the founder of the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center. The Globe regrets the error.