William Henry Lewis (November 28, 1868 – January 1, 1949) was an African-American pioneer in athletics, law and politics. Born in Virginia as the son of freedmen, he went to college in Massachusetts, where he became one of the first African-American college football players, and the first in the sport to be selected as an All-American. In 1903 Lewis was the first African American to be appointed as a Assistant United States Attorney; in 1910 he was the first to be appointed as one of the five United States Assistant Attorney Generals, despite opposition by the Southern Democratic block; and in 1911 he was the among the first African Americans to be admitted to the American Bar Association.
When Lewis was appointed as an Assistant Attorney General in 1910, it was reported to be "the highest office in an executive branch of the government ever held by a member of that race." Before being appointed as an AAG, Lewis served for 12 years as a football coach at Harvard University. During that period, he wrote one of the first books on football tactics and was considered a nationally known expert on the game.
Lewis was born in Berkley, Virginia in 1868, the son of former slaves of European and African ancestry. His father moved the family to Portsmouth and became a respected minister. At age 15, Lewis enrolled in the state's all-black college, the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University).
Football player and coach
With the assistance of Virginia Normal's president, John Mercer Langston, Lewis transferred to Amherst College, where he worked as a waiter to earn his college expenses. He also played football for Amherst for three seasons. In December 1890, the Amherst team voted "almost unanimously" to elect Lewis as the team captain for his senior year, 1891. He was also the class orator and the winner of prizes for oratory and debating.
W. E. B. Du Bois went to the Amherst commencement ceremony to see Lewis and another African-American student, George W. Forbes, receive their diplomas.
All-American center at Harvard
After graduating from Amherst, Lewis enrolled at Harvard Law School. He played two years for the Harvard football team at the center position. An article published by the College Football Hall of Fame noted that, while Lewis "was relatively light for the position (175 pounds) he played with intelligence, quickness and maturity." He was named as the center on the College Football All-America Team in both years at Harvard. He was the first African American to be honored as an All-American,.On one occasion when Lewis and the Harvard team entered a dining hall, the Princeton University football team (which had many Southerners) rose as a group and exited in objection to the Negro player. In November 1893, Harvard's team captain was unable to play in the last game of the season due to an injury. The game was Lewis' last college football game, and the team voted him as the acting captain for the game, making him Harvard's first African-American team captain.
In announcing the All-America selections for Harper's Weekly, Caspar Whitney wrote that "Lewis has proved himself to be not only the best centre in football this year, but the best all-round centre that has ever put on a football jacket." In 1900 Walter Camp named Lewis to his All-Time All America Team, noting that Lewis's quickness had revolutionized center play, placing the emphasis on "mobility rather than fixed stability."
- In 1980, Lewis was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
- In 2009, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Football coach at Harvard
Following law school, Lewis was hired as a football coach at Harvard, where he served from 1895 to 1906. During his coaching tenure, the team had a combined record of 114–15–5. The Boston Journal wrote that Lewis was owed "much of the credit for the great defensive strength Harvard elevens have always shown."
Author and renowned expert on football
Lewis developed a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable experts on the game. In 1896, Lewis wrote one of the first books on American football, A Primer of College Football, published by Harper & Brothers, and serialized by Harper's Weekly. Upon the book's release, one reviewer noted:
In a 1904 article, The Philadelphia Inquirer placed Lewis on par with the legendary Walter Camp in his knowledge of the game, writing, "The one man whom Harvard has to match Mr. Camp in football experience and general knowledge is William H. Lewis the famous Harvard centre of the early nineties and the man who is the recognized authority on defense in football the country over."
In 1905, critics of football sought to ban it from college campuses, or to alter its rules to control its violent nature. Lewis published an editorial in which he wrote, "There is nothing the matter with football. ... The game itself is one of the finest sports ever devised for the pastime of youth, and the pleasure of the public." While opposing unnecessary roughness, Lewis argued against proposed changes, noting that he did not want to watch "a game of ping-pong or marbles upon the football field."Lewis asserted that football should remain "a strenuous competition, a scientific game played according to the rules of the game with vigor and force, sincerity and earnestness."
Lewis later recalled, "There is no game like football. ... If it hadn't been for football there is no telling what I would be today. ... It gives you a general hardening and training which stands a man in good use in later life."
Politician and lawyer
Lewis entered politics by successfully running for election to the Cambridge Common Council where he served from 1899-1902. He also was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1901 for a single term, the last African American elected to that body for decades.
As a result of his Harvard football career, Lewis became a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard alumnus, and was a guest of Roosevelt's at his estate at Oyster Bay, New York in 1900. In 1903 the United States Attorney for Boston Henry P. Moulton, at the direction of Roosevelt, appointed Lewis as an Assistant United States Attorney in Boston; he was the first African American to be an Assistant US Attorney. His appointment was reported in newspapers across the country. Some wrote that the appointment was an effort by Roosevelt to show that "his championing of the negro is not political and is not limited to the southern states." The New York Times downplayed Lewis' race, noting, "Lewis is said to be so light in color that only his intimate friends know him to be a negro."
Some wrote that Roosevelt appointed Lewis in order to keep him in Boston, where he could continue coaching the Harvard football team. The author noted that Lewis "owes his appointment to the fact that he is an uncommonly good football coach and that President Roosevelt is a Harvard man." Cornell has made several attempts to hire Lewis as its football coach. According to the story, Harvard men were "unwilling to lose Lewis's services in the football season, and they undertook to make his residence here so profitable that he would remain."
First African-American Assistant Attorney General
In October 1910, President William Howard Taft announced he would appoint Lewis as an United States Assistant Attorney General, sparking a national debate. A North Carolina newspaper wrote that the "Lucky Colored Man" would hold the "Highest Public Office Ever Held by One of His Race." The appointment was reported to be "the highest office in an executive branch of the government ever held by a member of that race." The Boston Journal wrote that Lewis had received "the highest honor of the kind ever paid to a negro," such that he then ranked in "a position of credit and influence second only to that occupied by Booker T. Washington.”
The Washington Evening Star concluded that the appointment of Lewis to "a higher governmental position than any heretofore given to a colored man" would result in a confirmation battle with southern Democrats. An Illinois paper mistakenly reported in December 1910 that opposition to Lewis was so strong that Taft had decided not to place his appointment before the Senate. But, Taft did not withdraw the nomination, and a Georgia newspaper predicted a "Hard Fight Is Coming" on the nomination:
After a two-month fight against him waged by the Southern Democratic block (Southern states had disfranchised most blacks at the turn of the century and white Democrats dominated southern politics), the Senate confirmed Lewis as an Assistant Attorney General in June 1911. After being sworn into office, Lewis went to the White House, where he personally thanked President Taft for the high honor. Lewis' initial assignment was to defend the federal government against all Indian land claims. Lewis was a frequent caller at the White House and regularly attended White House functions during the Taft administration.
Challenge from southern ABA members
In 1911, Lewis was among the first African Americans to be admitted to the American Bar Association (ABA). In September 1911, Lewis faced a campaign for his ouster from the ABA. Though there was no racial restriction in the organization's charter, some members threatened to resign if Lewis stayed. When Lewis' name had been submitted with others by the Massachusetts Bar Association, his race had not been disclosed. The Southern white delegates said they did not know he was a negro until he entered the convention hall. Lewis refused to resign.
When the ABA's executive committee voted to oust Lewis in early 1912, U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham sent a "spirited letter" to each of the 4,700 members of the ABA condemning the decision. While northern newspapers congratulated Lewis and Wickersham for their stance, a North Carolina newspaper criticized Lewis for his lack of "good manners" in refusing to resign:
Lewis became an advocate for African Americans in the legal profession. During the fight over his removal from the ABA, Lewis published an article saying that many white men "know intimately only the depraved, ignorant, vicious negros – those who helped to keep the dockets filled." He called for blacks to train and form "an army of negro lawyers of strong hearts, cool heads, and sane judgment", to help the large number of African Americans who were "exploited, swindled and misused".
Private law practice
Lewis's tenure as Assistant Attorney General ended with Taft's presidency in 1913, as these are political appointee positions tied to particular administrations. Taft recommended Lewis for appointment as a Massachusetts Superior Court judge, but the state's governor, Eugene Foss, declined to make the appointment. Lewis returned to Massachusetts and entered the private practice of law. He developed a reputation as an outstanding trial lawyer and appeared before the United States Supreme Court on more than a dozen occasions. He remained active in Republican politics while practicing law. Among his cases, he represented persons accused of bootlegging and corruption, in addition to those challenging racial discrimination.
Civil rights leader and speaker
Throughout his career, Lewis was outspoken on issues of race and discrimination. After a white barber in Cambridge refused to shave Lewis, he filed a suit seeking $5,000 in damages and successfully lobbied for the passage of a Massachusetts law prohibiting racial discrimination in places of public accommodation.
In 1902, Lewis delivered an address on race relations to a gathering of Amherst College alumni. Lewis called race the "transcendent problem" facing the country, referring to the recent Spanish–American War, the disfranchisement of blacks in the South by new state constitutions, and the imposition of Jim Crow, which deprived blacks of civil rights, in his remarks:
He delivered the commencement address to the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute Class of 1910 in Alabama, urging them, despite adversity, to maintain their love for the South:
While serving as Assistant Attorney General, Lewis learned that a young African-American graduate of Harvard had been refused employment at a prominent Boston trust company on account of race. In a speech to Boston business leaders, Lewis said: "In Boston the outlook for the negro is far worse than it has been since the Civil War. I think the blood of three signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Abolitionists has run out." He noted that, if he owned the majority of stock in a certain trust company, he would force the company to hire "the blackest man in Boston." Lewis' speech reportedly drew "volumes of cheers" from the businessmen and "also from the colored waiters who cheered frequently."
Lewis was one of three persons invited to deliver an address at Boston's Symphony Hall memorial to abolitionist Julia Ward Howe following her death in 1910.
In 1919, Lewis was one of the signatories to a call published in the New York Herald for a National Conference on Lynching, intended to take concerted action against the widespread practice of lynching and lawlessness in primarily Southern states. Lynching had reached what is now seen as a peak in the South around the turn of the century, the period when those states imposed white supremacy. In the summer of 1919, after Lewis' speech, the economic and social tensions of the postwar years erupted in numerous white racial attacks against blacks in northern and midwestern cities where blacks had migrated by the thousands and were competing with recent European immigrants; it was called Red Summer.