William H Lewis was the first African American to play college football. He transferred from the all black college the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University) to Amherst College where he played for three years where he was “almost unanimously” voted captain of the team in his senior year. His career at Amherst was the first integration of a college team. He enrolled in Harvard Law School where he played football for Harvard as a center for two years although weighing a light 175 lbs. He was named center for the College Football All American Team in both years at Harvard, the first African American All American. He was named captain of the All-America team in 1893. 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’s 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. Following law school, Lewis was hired as a football coach at Harvard where he served from 1895-1906 with a combined record of 114-15-5.
Lewis was elected to the Cambridge City Council where he served from 1899-1902. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt who appointed him Assistant United States Attorney for Boston, the first African American to be named to such a position. Some say this happened because Harvard alum Roosevelt wanted to keep Lewis in Boston to coach for Harvard. In October 1910, William Howard Taft announced that he would nominated Lewis for Assistant Attorney General of the United States. This sparked a raging debate over nominating an African American to such a high position and it was fought against by the southern states.
On February 28, 1911, President William Howard Taft officially nominated William H Lewis for Assistant Attorney General of the United States.