booker t. washington portrait

On William Henry Lewis

American Magazine
June, 1915

(Pub note) Mr. Lewis was Assistant U. S. Attorney-General, a position to which he rose from Dr. Booker T. Washington's earlier recommendation to President T. Roosevelt for 3rd Assistant U. S. District Attorney.

About five years after Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation that set four millions of my race in America free, there was born in Berkeley, Virginia, a little colored boy who became Assistant Attorney-General of the United States and, after some difficulty, a member of the National American Bar Association.

Shortly after his first appearance, in a Negro cabin on the out-skirts of Berkeley, the little Negro boy received the name of William Henry Lewis. One of the first privileges that freedom brought to the colored people was that of having just as many names as White folk. Those of us who happen to have come along a little earlier did not, in most cases, enjoy this privilege. We were born with only one name and did not acquire the other until shortly after the Surrender. But this boy of whom I am writing was born not only under the Stars and Stripes, but also under the Proclamation, and so he was able to start out in life as William Henry Lewis, instead of just plain Bill. This, in my opinion, is quite as it should be, since a man with only one name, that anyone knows anything about, is usually a man who wears only one gallus and no collar, and amounts to very little in the community.

"…he has…[reached] perhaps the most responsible position ever held in the Government by a colored man…reached this position as a merited promotion after long service and…demonstrated…ability

I mention this matter of a name because I want to emphasize the fact that this boy was born in the early days of Emancipation, when all the colored people round about Berkeley and Portsmouth, where he lived, were inspired with a great hope. William Henry was the sort of boy to be touched and stimulated by the big feeling that prevailed everywhere throughout the South about this time. In fact, he is one of the "new issues," as the younger generation is sometimes called, who seems to have come as near as anyone else to justifying the expectations of those early days. I say this, not merely because he has succeeded in reaching what is, perhaps, the most responsible position ever held in the Government by a colored man, but because he has reached this position as a merited promotion after long service and has demonstrated his ability to fill his place.

It was young Lewis's fortune—comparatively rare among colored boys—to get into school at an early age. By peddling matches and doing odd jobs he managed in one way and another to make his way through the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, one of the early schools for colored youth in that part of the country. From there he went to Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he was graduated in 1892. While he was in Amherst he did two things which, aside from the color of his skin, served to set him off from the rest of the student body. He made himself captain of the college football team, and distinguished himself as an orator and debater. He not only carried off the prizes in at least two of the most important contests, but was finally elected by his class at graduation to deliver the class-day oration, an honor of which he is still very proud.

In the early days after the war, one of the great sources of entertainment and instruction for masses of the people, White and Black, who had the good fortune to live in a town where there was a court house, was the opportunity to go to court on days when some important cases were on trial. Particularly when there was a murder case people would gather from the surrounding country.

Mr. Lewis has told me that he received many a good thrashing for running away from home at night to attend the trial of some of the cases that were once famous in the annals of the Portsmouth courts. A murder trial is not, perhaps, the best sort of amusement for a boy, but the excitement of these murder trials, in which some of the keenest minds in the state were pitted against each other, provided a kind of stuff to kindle the imagination of an impressionable boy, and it was this early experience, more than anything else, that led young Lewis, after he had completed his course at Amherst, go farther and try what the Harvard Law School could do toward giving him a profession and making him a lawyer.

While Lewis was at Harvard he gained an almost national reputation as a football player. It was his business, as he has explained to me, from his position in the center, to hit the opposing line, and hit it hard. He did this so well that in his day he had the reputation of being the best player who had ever played in that position. He believes that, perhaps, the most valuable portion of his training in college was obtained on the football field, where he learned, as he says, "to regard with indifference trifling insults or severe physical hurts." Mr. Lewis has been playing the game of life much as he learned to play football in Harvard. He fought his way up without fear, and has never been satisfied except to win.

Many people believe that it is much easier for a colored man to succeed in the North than in the South, because there is no "color line" in the North as there is in the South, at least, no color line that is clearly marked and officially recognized. And yet, one of the most baffling and discouraging obstacles in the way of colored people in the North is this same "color line" all the more perplexing because it is so vague, so inconsistent and so changing. Mr. Lewis has been no exception in this respect. He has had his turn at "bucking the color line," as he sometimes calls it. I am glad to say, however, that he has not permitted himself to be discouraged or permanently soured by any of his experiences.

After leaving the university Mr. Lewis settled in Cambridge and practiced law in Boston. He entered politics and was elected city councilman of Cambridge in 1899, 1900 and 1901. In 1902 he was elected to the State Legislature, but was defeated for reelection the following year. In 1903 he was appointed by President Roosevelt to the position of Third Assistant United States District Attorney with headquarters at Boston. He was promoted to Second Assistant United States District Attorney in 1904, and was head of the Naturalization bureau from 1903 to 1909.

In 1911, when he was appointed to the position he occupied until recently, that of Assistant Attorney-General of the United States, the colored men of Boston gave him a banquet at one of the leading hotels of the city At this banquet, in reply to the congratulations showered upon him by other speakers, Mr. Lewis made a speech in which he made two references that particularly impressed me. He recalled the fact that in this same hotel in which he was at that moment an honored guest, he had once served in the capacity of waiter; and in reference to the honor that had been conferred upon him, he declared that he had no illusions. He knew, he said, that it was not in spite of, but because of the fact that he was a Negro that he had been honored with this high office. He added that he accepted the responsibilities of the position not merely as a distinction conferred upon himself but upon the whole race which he represented.

The reason I mention this fact is because it is not always comfortable to be colored man in this country, and the inconveniences frequently increase as individuals, either by fortune or through their own particular merits, succeed in rising to a position above the masses of their fellows.

One reason why I with most other colored people, believe in, honor and respect Mr. Lewis is because, in the high position in which he has risen, he has neither forgotten his own path nor sought to separate himself from the race to which he belongs.

Booker T. Washington

submitted to the American Magazine in September 1912. Mr. Lewis' appointment was made upon the recommendation from Dr. Booker T. Washington.