Elma Lewis

The story of Elma Lewis is indeed a novel, a real-life story of dedication and vision. Many of us who are familiar with this extraordinary Roxbury resident and her accomplishments in dance and theatre may not immediately think or remember of Miss Lewis’s contribution to the “music scene” of New England. However, if there was ever a promoter or advocate of music in New England, Elma Lewis takes a back seat to no one. In fact, you may be hard pressed to find many New Englanders who have done more to promote and bring music, all music, to all the people like the immortal Elma Lewis achieved. 

I am proud to write the following piece for the Music Museum of New England on Elma Lewis and her invaluable impact on Boston, New England and the World through her contributions of Music. At the same time, I must mention that while the Music Museum Of New England Recognizes its inductees for their music contributions, Miss Lewis, her vision and her contribution to Dance and Theater are equally remarkable.

Elma Lewis: The Early Years

At the turn of the century, Barbadian immigrants Edwardine and Clairmont Lewis arrived in Boston. The married couple had a daughter on September 15, 1921, Elma Ina Lewis. Experiencing racial prejudice at the level they endured here in Boston was new to them but unfortunately not unexpected. But they had an inner source of pride and resilience, they were devotees of Marcus Garvey and his philosophy of self-reliance and nationalism. While a young girl, they took Elma to meetings of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. To Elma’s family self-reliance meant caring for your home and your community. Elma Lewis’ mother would even have her daughter sweep their building’s steps daily. To her Mother, it was important to do something, to do anything to improve your home and your neighborhood. It was this loyalty to Roxbury that Elma inherited that would fuel her desire to serve her community through her love of the Arts. After graduating from Emerson College in 1943 and receiving a Masters in Education from BU in 1948, it practically seemed destined that she would combine the two and…..Teach The Arts.

Elma, The Arts Teacher

After borrowing $300 from her Dad in 1950, the Elma Lewis vision began at 7 Waumbeck Street in Roxbury where the Elma Lewis School Of Fine Arts was born. Among the items purchased for the school were two secondhand pianos, a ballet studio, an art studio and music room. Elma had 25 students immediately. As Miss Lewis told the Thehistorymakers, an organization that records African American oral histories, “We were over-run with students. For one thing, I didn’t accept money from boys, because I wanted boys. As traditional, black people educate girls and let the boys rough it. But I couldn’t see how that could be successful, so I wanted the boys to develop. People would always say, ‘You have so many boys.’ And I would just smile. They didn’t know that was–that the boys got something for nothing. Those boys are still in my life today.” Soon the school would demand larger space and relocate to 449 Blue Hill Avenue in 1955 and Charlotte Street in 1964. Eventually the school would find its home on the corner of Elm Hill Avenue and Seaver Street.

In 1968, after the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts had been open for eighteen years, Miss Lewis founded the National Center for Afro-American Artists “to preserve and foster the cultural arts heritage of black peoples worldwide through arts teaching, and the presentation of professional works in all fine arts disciplines.” Also known as the NCAAA, she partnered NCAAA with her School of the Fine Arts.

During that time, Elma Lewis decided that during the summer months an outdoor venue would be the ideal add-on to her vision. Her school had performed all over Massachusetts and beyond at this point but an outdoor venue in the community would provide new and exciting performing possibilities. According to the Franklin Park Coalition, “In the 1960s, Miss Lewis and her students cleared an overgrown area in Franklin Park where the Overlook Shelter had burned and then erected the Playhouse stage to create an open-air performance venue.” And with that, the Elma Lewis had the early stages of the historic PLAYHOUSE IN THE PARK. Starting in 1968 many in Boston’s Black community heard and saw jazz, African music, reggae and Latino music performed for the first time (this writer included). Many performances were conducted by students of her schools. Imagine that, students from the community performing on stage, outdoors, summer evenings in their community, right in Franklin Park. The performances combined music with dance and sometimes the spoken word. The performances ran July 4th through Labor Day and were free. These evenings were a revelation that brought people together to celebrate their cultural and artistic heritage like no other Boston venue ever before. Over 100,000 attended shows during the first season. Hey, betcha’ did not know this: (ok, neither did I): It was PLAYHOUSE IN THE PARK that inspired the City Of Boston and community leaders to start…..SUMMERTHING! Through The Elma Lewis School Of Arts Black and Brown residents had access to the arts on a level that was lacking in Boston.

As a promoter and determined to bring all music to the community Elma Lewis had Jazz icons Duke Ellington as well as Billy Taylor and Max Roach perform at Playhouse In The Park. Folk icon Odetta played there too. Elma even brought in Boston institutions like the Boston Ballet and the Boston Pops Orchestra to perform. And when Elma Lewis wanted to raise funds for her ELSA/NCAAA institution, she had the ability to produce like few in Boston could. Try this on for size: On August 26th, 1969 Wilson Pickett and Sly and the Family Stone were the two-star attractions at Harvard Stadium to help Miss Elma Lewis raise funds for her National Center for Afro-American Artists. I repeat, Sly and The Family Stone and Wilson Pickett, 1969! In fact Elma Lewis became such a powerful personality in Black America that she attracted the attention and support of Muhammad Ali, Thomas Dorsey, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Leon Sullivan, and many more. The world came to Boston to help Ms. Lewis: Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Max Roach. They all pitched in to teach or perform or help raise money for her school.

And of course, in the mid 70’s there was the “Uptown In The Park” concerts. Those shows were produced for the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and they alone could secure Elma Lewis as a concert promoter/producer. On July 6th, 1975 the first of two concerts was held at the 10,00 seat White Stadium in Franklin Park. The concert brought in Sly and the Family Stone, Tower Of Power and The Hughes Corporation. (You remember “Rock The Boat”?) The comedy was provided by Richard Pryor. The following year, 1976, featured Parliament/Funkadelic, The O’Jays, New Birth and Donald Byrd & The Blackbryds. This writer is pleased to say that I attended that 1976 show, my very first largest scale concert.

Elma Lewis the dance instructor, used many of her music students from right here in Boston’s Black neighborhood to accompany her dancers. Under her leadership, her troupes performed across the country and even performed in the Senegal, Brazil and Europe. She also had stage dramas and musicals performers, many who would have their beginnings with her and went on to extraordinary careers of their own. Her vision as a little girl sweeping the steps in Roxbury was now a global reality. She was indeed giving to her community on a level that had not been achieved prior. And in line with her induction to the Music Museum of New England for her music contribution, can anyone imagine how many students of Elma Lewis became musicians because they learned piano or any other instrument at her school. And with teachers including musician/composer John A. Ross, African percussionist M. Babatunde Olatunji who taught at the school, the students had an array of instructors that any music school would envy. And most students paid minimal fees. Those numbers could easily be in the thousands. Many teachers at her school also came right from the Boston neighborhoods.

And how could one speak about Elma Lewis and music and not mention that Elma Lewis started the wintertime performance of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity”. Since 1969 Black Nativity remains a Boston Tradition. And again, it was Elma Lewis and her vision that began this music filled classic. Elma Lewis even directed the performances for the first several years. All these years later the performances of Black Nativity remain a must-see. 

The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts closed at its Elm Hill Avenue location following a fire in 1985. According to the Boston Preservation Alliance, “Around 1980, the NCAAA acquired the Abbotsford, a Neo-Gothic home built in 1872 by Roxbury Architect Allen Frink for Aaron Davis Williams Jr., which had been deteriorating since the mid 1970’s when it was no longer used by Boston Public Schools. Once renovated, the home became the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and showcased work from African, Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean, and African American artists around the world.” The NCAAA is located at 300 Walnut Ave. Roxbury. 

Even in her declining years Elma Lewis remained a vocal supporter and powerful presence in Boston.  As she did throughout her life, in addition to her contribution to the arts, Miss Lewis also served her community as an advocate for justice and fairness. There she was equally as tough in her position on racial issues and poverty as she was demanding that her students reach to achieve their inner greatness.

In speaking to some of Miss Lewis’ former students they all remarked that she was a disciplinarian who received full attention from her students. Despite having no children of her own Elma Lewis once remarked to the thehistorymakers, “I used to lament the fact that I hadn’t married and had children. I have more children than anybody I know. They don’t let me need anything or want anything that they don’t come and fulfill.”

On January 1, 2004, Elma Lewis died at the age of 82 in her Boston home from pulmonary complications stemming from diabetes. She would have been 100 years old this year. 

The Music Museum Of New England is proud to include the Grande Dame of Arts in Roxbury, Elma Lewis, into its archives for her indelible mark on the New England music scene. Through her promotion of music, the thousands of her students, their children and their grandchildren keep the Elma Lewis vision alive today. 

(by Edwin Sumpter)

Published on December 1, 2021