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The Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research

Who was Elma Lewis?

"When I leave here, the body of my work will be all these wonderful people out there in the world, doing great things."

Elma Ina Lewis
(1921 - 2004, Emerson ’43)

Elma Lewis

Born in Boston to parents who had emigrated from the West Indies, Elma Lewis attended public school, thriving in the performing arts before being accepted to Emerson College. To finance her education, she worked her way through Emerson by acting in local theater productions, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1943, followed a year later with a Masters in Education from Boston University.

After completing her education, Elma Lewis taught speech therapy at Boston-area hospitals and health centers. She also shared her talents in fine and performing arts at the Harriet Tubman House and local community center.

In 1950, Elma opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury to promote an arts and communication education for Boston’s African American youth. In 1966 she founded Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, offering free summer performances that were revived in recent years continuing her work and her legacy. In 1968, Elma founded the National Center for Afro-American Artists, which brought students from the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts to tour in stage productions on a national level.

A recipient of honors of the highest level, Elma was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976, was one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 1981, and was awarded the Presidential Medal for the Arts by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. At the 1988 inaugural National Black Arts Conference she was declared and honored as a “Living Legend.”

After a lifetime of service, Elma Lewis passed away on New Years Day, 2004. She was the recipient of over 400 awards and 28 honorary degrees. Her former students continue in her footsteps all over the United States, many of them working in the performing arts here in the city of Boston.