What Elma Left Us by Zoë Gadegbeku

Ms. Lewis Teaching Ballet (image courtesy of Northeastern University archives)

A quick online search for Elma Lewis will reveal an archive of photographs of Elma Lewis caught with various impassioned expressions on her face. In one memorable frame, she is mid-laugh with the legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington leaning over her shoulder, her signature bun pulled to the top of her head.

Elma Lewis was a Boston icon. An arts educator, community leader, and MacArthur foundation “Genius” grant winner, she promoted the arts as an empowering force for young Black people. Now more than ever, her legacy deserves center stage as Black artists flourish in spite of underrepresentation in arts spaces and structural racism in the U.S. in general.

With the exception of some well-known history class staples, Black women’s brilliance usually doesn’t make it out of the footnotes, if it’s recognized at all. It often takes other Black women to uncover and uplift each other’s work, like Alice Walker did for Zora Neale Hurston.

Betty Hillmon, who worked as director of music education at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, attests to Lewis’ compelling presence and influence on others. “Her core radiated to other people and they held onto it.”

When Elma Lewis opened her school in Roxbury in 1950, the American Civil Rights movement was just a few years from igniting a generation towards justice and equality. Her native Barbados was still over a decade away from liberation from European rule, as were many African nations. Lewis’s school answered a need for a space for Black Bostonians to revel in creative expression at a time when racial injustice was attempting to keep Black futures clasped in its unrelenting grip.

But there was, and still is, a lot more at stake.

Elma Lewis recognized that Black children needed to be affirmed in their personhood and to grow into responsible, dynamic people, many of whom would go on to work at the intersection of art and activism.

Her work involved shaping individuals who were more than exceptional singers, dancers, actors, and musicians. She recognized that Black art has the power to fire up social change and to cultivate hope. Years after the school’s opening, Elma Lewis said, “Our role is to support anything positive in black life and destroy anything negative that touches it. You have no other reason for being. I don’t understand art for art’s sake. Art is the guts of the people.”

The oft-used phrase “politically charged” serves as a sly reference to Black artistic production that challenges white people’s complacency about “progress” in the United States. White supremacy is constantly deepening its grasp, and Black artists will often find their work forced into an unwanted niche because of assumptions about their worldview.

Lewis’s words are a crucial reminder.

Black artists have the capacity use their creations to invigorate themselves and those whom their creations touch, no matter how bleak the political and social climate.

The students who were lucky enough to pass through Lewis’s studios gained a profound understanding of themselves as part of a vast network of artists, thinkers and doers. Lewis created spaces that became hubs for a stunning roll call of Black artists and performers to meet and interact with each other and with the students. Nina Simone, Alvin Ailey and Talley Beatty were only a few of the renowned artists who visited and taught classes at National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, founded by Lewis in 1968. Alicia Alonso, prima ballerina of the Cuban National Ballet, danced across the center’s wood floors under Elma Lewis’s instruction.

Elma Lewis believed that “when you knew yourself, you would have confidence and you would be able to exercise your creativity, and through the exercise of your creativity the world was yours.” In an interview, Barry Gaither, Director and Curator of the Museum of the NCAAA since 1969, emphasized Lewis’s devotion to Black people imagining themselves as firmly rooted in a global Blackness that continues to make immense contribution to culture today.

Especially in this digital age, Black people around the African diaspora can draw on Elma Lewis’s vision to connect and collaborate in celebrating Black life in all its fullness. People of African descent have the exciting opportunity to work together towards healing the fractures that remain after being separated by the brutality of colonialism and slavery.

Her tenacity and commitment to excellence is preserved and passed on in the memories and work of so many artists and activists who can all trace their artistic lineage to Elma Lewis’s training.

The day has arrived for Elma Lewis to exist not solely as a “hidden” gem of Boston’s Black history, but as a motivating force for artists depicting the triumphs and pain of human experience.