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Black History Boston: Elma Lewis

Today, we are proud to honor the life and contributions of Elma Lewis, the Grande Dame of Roxbury!

Elma Ina Lewis was born on September 15, 1921, in Boston. She was the daughter of two parents that immigrated from Barbados. Her parents were followers of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, which is where she attained her sense of racial pride and desire to promote African culture through her work. Elma attended Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls where she honed her vocal, piano, and dancing skills. In 1943, she received her Bachelors of Art from Emerson University, and received her Masters of Education from Boston University a year later. 

Elma Lewis Flyer
Photos Credit: The Northeastern University Archives

Afterwards, Elma taught speech therapy at Massachusetts Mental Health Center and other places, and taught fine arts at the Harriet Tubman House. In 1950, she founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts. This was in part predicated on a comment that was made when she was three, that stated that her IQ would not progress as she aged. The school was established to meet the various needs of the African American community in Boston. She developed a program to teach dance, drama, art, music, and costume design. Twenty-five students enrolled on the first day of school. At its peak, it enrolled about 700 students, with 100 teachers on staff

In 1966, Elma founded Playhouse in the Park, a summer theater program that featured great Black performers, such as the great Duke Ellington. In 1968, Elma founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists, an umbrella organization that included the school, jazz and classical orchestras, a chorus, a dance troupe, and a museum. Elma also developed the Technical Theatre Program at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute. The 750 individuals enrolled in the program put on performances and learned musical composing skills. 

Honors and Awards
  • Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1981)
  • Recipient of the Presidential Medal for the Arts (1983)
  • Trustee and life member of PBS station, WGBH
  • Trustee of the Massachusetts College of Art
  • More than 400 awards in her lifetime and twenty-eight honorary degrees

Many of Elma’s pupils have gone on to well established careers in entertainment, while others have opened up schools of their own. 

For her massive contributions to Roxbury, extensive achievements, and dedication to the arts, Elma was named the Grande Dame of Roxbury. In September 1996 for her birthday, events were created in Elma's honor, turning into a three-day birthday celebration of Elma’s achievements and life. It included events at many venues around the City and many influential members of society, such as Maya Angelou.

Thank you, Elma Lewis, for your life’s work and your commitment to the Black community of Boston!!

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