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Emerson College Elma Lewis Living Stories Project Launches with a Call to Artists

The Elma Lewis Center at Emerson College announces the launch of the Elma Lewis Living Stories Project, “What Miss Elma Lewis Taught Me,”honoring one of Boston’s most important Black female luminaries in the arts, education and civil rights work, Emerson alumna Elma Ina Lewis ’43.

Coordinated jointly by Emerson’s Elma Lewis and Social Justice Centers, the project launches with a Call to Artists, inviting those who knew Elma Lewis best, and those who wish to honor her legacy, to document in audio recordings, photographs, video, and film the stories they wish to share about her. The call is open through August 28, 2020.
Elma Lewis (1921-2004) engaged with artists and political leaders throughout the United States, and the globe, including Duke Ellington, Jimmy Carter, and the former Ambassador to the United Nations to further education, creativity and intellectual development and expression through dance, music, poetry and the visual arts for youth and people of all ages in schools, prisons, theaters and public parks. 

Lewis, who is the first Black woman to earn the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation MacArthur Fellowship, also known as “The Genius Grant,” is also set to be honored by the City of Boston on February 25, 2020 as part of Boston’s Black Excellence 2020 initiative. 

“This Living Stories Project intends to bring the impact of Elma Lewis’s work into public memory as a core part of Black history, arts and education in the Boston area and in the world,” said Tamera Marko, Executive Director of the Elma Lewis Center. “Visual art is a powerful form of storytelling that can embody and communicate the soul and heart of what the storyteller wants to say about how Elma Lewis impacted them and their communities.” 

According to Marko, many community members from the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and surrounding areas can passionately tell a story about “what Miss Elma Lewis taught me,” and how their lives have been deeply impacted by the seven decades of her work.

“Elma Lewis had an unwavering dedication to hope, education, creativity and intellectual development. She was an inspiration during her lifetime and remains an inspiration to us today at Emerson and in Boston,” said Sylvia Spears, Vice President for Equity & Social Justice in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College.

The Elma Lewis Living Stories Project is intended to move stories beyond the traditional cloisters of academic and institutional archives by thoughtfully circulating these stories in the form of artwork throughout vibrant and interactive community spaces, such as cafés, murals and schools. Its goal is to also inspire ongoing conversations about Elma Lewis’ impact in the community and in the arts.

About Elma Lewis

Born in Boston to parents who emigrated from Barbados, Elma Lewis graduated from Emerson College in 1943, and earned a master’s in education from Boston University. Elma Lewis devoted her life to invoking the arts as a powerful mechanism for personal and social change and promoting African American culture through a variety of art forms. In addition to teaching drama, dance, and speech therapy, Lewis also founded several cultural and education organizations to promote the arts and communication to Boston’s African American youth including the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury, Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, and the National Center of Afro-American Artists. She was one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and received the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 1983. Lewis was the recipient of over 400 awards and 28 honorary degrees.

About Emerson College

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, opposite the historic Boston Common and in the heart of the city’s Theatre District, Emerson College educates individuals who will solve problems and change the world through engaged leadership in communication and the arts, a mission informed by liberal learning. The College has 3,780 undergraduates and 670 graduate students from across the United States and 50 countries. Supported by state-of-the-art facilities and a renowned faculty, students participate in more than 90 student organizations and performance groups. Emerson is known for its experiential learning programs in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, the Netherlands, London, China, and the Czech Republic as well as its new Global Portals, with the first program launching this fall in Paris. The College has an active network of 39,000 alumni who hold leadership positions in communication and the arts. For more information, visit


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