Friday, November 16, 2012

Why remember William H. Lewis?

Before we say goodbye to 2012, the year in which we re-elected our first African-American President, I would like to mention an important centenary in civil rights law. One hundred years ago William H. Lewis, a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, completed his service as the first African-American Assistant Attorney General of the United States.
William H. Lewis, Esq.

It was President William Howard Taft who appointed Lewis, and President Woodrow Wilson, the winner of the 1912 election, who fired him. As Professor J. Clay Smith, Jr., points out in Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944, before leaving the White House, Taft tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Governor of Massachusetts to appoint Lewis to the bench.

Although Lewis never became a judge, he helped shape the state's anti-discrimination statutes. Even as a law student in the mid-1890s, Lewis was already part of Boston's network of African-American civil rights activists. Whether to bring a test case or just by chance, he visited a Cambridge barber shop for a haircut. When the owner refused him service Lewis and his allies -- including State Representative Robert Teamoh -- lobbied to add barber shops to the list of places where discrimination was unlawful.

The lobbying paid off. So even before his stint as a state legislator in 1902, Lewis had left an imprint on the statute book. Those of us who practice anti-discrimination law can be thankful for his efforts.