US Assistant Attorney General Will Join NAACP
William H Lewis was born in Berkley, Virginia in 1868, the son of former slaves. At 15 Lewis enrolled in the state’s all-black college, the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. He transferred to Amherst College where he played football for 3 years and was voted captain of the team in his senior year. His career at Amherst was the first integration of a college sports team. Lewis enrolled in Harvard Law School where he played football for Harvard as a center for 2 years although weighing a light 175 lbs. He was named center for the College Football All American Team in both years at Harvard becoming 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. In February 1911, Taft made the nomination official. After months of debate, Lewis’ appointment was confirmed in June 1911. This made him the first African-American to serve in a presidential administration. He became the first African American member of the American Bar Association later that same year. Some southern ABA member threatened to secede the organization and Lewis refused to resign. When the ABA’s executive committee voted to oust Lewis in early 1912 US Attorney General George W Wickersham sent a “spirited letter” to each of the 4,700 members of the ABA condemning the decision.
In 1908 race riots broke out in Springfield, Illinois. William English Walling and his wife Anna Strunsky investigated the riots and wrote about them “…the spirit of the abolitionists, of Lincoln and Lovejoy, must be revived and we must come to treat the negro on a plane of absolute political and social equality.” The article was read by Mary White Ovington – journalist, socialist and social activist. Ovington responded to the article by writing Walling and meeting at his apartment in New York City along with social worker Dr. Henry Moskowitz. The group decided to launch a campaign by issuing a “call” for a national conference on the civil and political rights of African-Americans on the centennial of Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1909. Many people responded. This led to the formation of the National Negro Committee that held its first meeting in New York in May and June 1909. By May 1910 the National Negro organized a permanent body known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – the NAACP. In June 1911 the NAACP was officially incorporated. Their founding chartered states:
“To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.”
Dr W E B Du Bois was named Director of Publicity and Research. In early 1912 when the ABA controversy was taking place, Dubois sent a telegram to Lewis inviting him to join the NAACP.
On June 21, 1912 William H Lewis sent a reply to Du Bois thanking him and promising barring any controversy, his application to the NAACP would be forthcoming.