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Honoring Black History Month: Ms. Elma Lewis ’43

Ms. Elma Lewis at desk
Ms. Elma Lewis ’43 works at her desk in 1978. Photo/Georgia Litwack

Throughout Black History Month, we’ll be highlighting historic Black Emersonians who, over the past century, have broken new ground and planted the seeds of justice through their contributions to the arts and communication.

Ms. Elma Lewis

Ms. Elma Ina Lewis ’43 was one of Boston’s most important Black female luminaries in the arts, education, and civil rights work. Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts to parents who had emigrated from Barbados, Ms. Lewis was dedicated to teaching Black and Brown youth education through the arts. She graduated from Emerson in 1943, financing her education by acting in local theatre productions, and went on to earn her master’s in education from Boston University. 

In 1950, Ms. Lewis opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury to promote arts and communication education for Boston’s Black youth. She later founded Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, offering free summer performances; and the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), bringing students from the Elma Lewis School to tour in stage productions on a national level.

She also co-established Boston’s annual holiday production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, which has been running for more than 50 consecutive years. In 1970, she established the Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) Norfolk Prison Theatre Program, in which participants created several productions for which they were entirely responsible for doing the writing, acting, music, and production.  

Ms. Lewis was also one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 1981. Her work impacted and continues to impact thousands of people in Roxbury, Boston, and around the world, and her legacy lives on at Emerson through the Elma Lewis Center and the Elma Lewis Living Stories Project.

Learn about the Elma Lewis Center at Emerson College → 

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