William H. Lewis
Born(1868-11-28)November 28, 1868
Berkley, Virginia
DiedJanuary 1, 1949(1949-01-01) (aged 80)
Boston, Massachusetts
Cause of deathheart failure
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materAmherst College, Harvard Law School
Known forAmerican football player and coach, lawyer, state legislator, Assistant United States Attorney

William Henry Lewis (November 28, 1868 – January 1, 1949) was an African-American pioneer in athletics, politics and law. He was the first African-American college football player, the first in the sport to be selected as an All-American, the first to be appointed as an Assistant United States Attorney, the first to become a member of the American Bar Association, and the first to serve as United States Assistant Attorney General. When he was appointed Assistant Attorney General in 1910, it was reported to be "the highest office in an executive branch of the government ever held by a member of that race." Before being appointed as the Assistant Attorney General, Lewis also served for 12 years as a football coach at Harvard University and was a noted expert and author of works on the game.

Early yearsEdit

Lewis was born in Berkley, Virginia in 1868, the son of former slaves.[1][2] His father moved the family to Portsmouth, where he became a respected minister.[2] At age 15, Lewis enrolled in the state's all-black college, the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University).[3]

Football player and coachEdit

Amherst CollegeEdit

With the assistance of Virginia Normal's president, John Mercer Langston,[3] Lewis transferred to Amherst College, where he worked as a waiter to earn his college expenses.[2] He also played football for Amherst for three seasons.[1] In December 1890, the Amherst team voted "almost unanimously" to elect Lewis as the team captain for his senior year, 1891.[4] He was also the class orator and the winner of prizes for oratory and debating.[1] In his book about the racial integration of football, Alan Howard Levy cites Lewis as the first African-American football player and the 1888 Amherst team as the first integrated team in the history of the sport:

"In 1888 the Amherst College football team had the first African American player. His name was William H. Lewis. ... This was the first integration of an America college football team."[5]
W. E. B. Du Bois went to the Amherst commencment ceremony to see Lewis and another African-American student receive their diplomas.[6]

All-American center at HarvardEdit

File:William H. Lewis (1892).jpg

After graduating from Amherst, Lewis enrolled at Harvard Law School. He played two years for the Harvard football team at the center position. An article published by the College Football Hall of Fame noted that, while Lewis "was relatively light for the position (175 pounds) he played with intelligence, quickness and maturity."[7] He was named as the center on the College Football All-America Team in both years at Harvard. He was the first African-American to be honored as an All-American,[3][8][9] and was named captain of the All-America team in 1893.[10] Yet, despite this renown, on one occasion when Lewis and the Harvard team entered a dining hall,the Princeton University football team rose as a group and exited in objection to the Negro player.[11] In November 1893, Harvard's team captain was unable to play in the last game of the season due to an injury. The game was Lewis's last college football game, and the team voted him as the acting captain for the game, making hi m Harvard's first African-American team captain.[3][12]

In announcing the All-America selections for Harper's Weekly, Casper Whitney wrote that "Lewis has proved himself to be not only the best centre in football this year, but the best all-round centre that has ever put on a football jacket."[10] And in 1900 Walter Camp named Lewis to his All-Time All America Team, noting that Lewis's quickness had revolutionized center play, placing the emphasis on "mobility rather than fixed stability."[10]

In 2009, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.[13]

Football coach at HarvardEdit

Following law school, Lewis was hired as a football coach at Harvard where he served from 1895 to 1906.[3] During his coaching tenure the team had a combined record of 114–15–5.[3] The Boston Journal wrote that Lewis was owed "much of the credit for the great defensive strength Harvard elevens have always shown."[1]

Author and renowned expert on footballEdit

Lewis developed a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable experts on the game. In 1896, Lewis published one of the first books on American football. It was called "A Primer of College Football," published by Harper & Brothers, and serialized by Harper’s Weekly.[3][14] Upon the book's release, one reviewer noted:

"A new feature, hitherto inadequately treated by previous authors, is the exhaustive treatment of fundamentals or the rudiments of the game, such as passing, catching, dropping upon the ball, kicking, blocking, making holes, breaking through and tackling. There is also a treatise on 'avoiding injuries' ... There are scientific expositions of team play, offensive and defensive, and a supplementary chapter on training which will be useful."[15]

In a 1904 article, The Philadelphia Inquirer placed Lewis on par with the legendary Walter Camp in his knowledge of the game:

"The one man whom Harvard has to match Mr. Camp in football experience and general knowledge is William H. Lewis the famous Harvard centre of the early nineties and the man who is the recognized authority on defense in football the country over."[16]

In 1905, critics of football sought to ban it from college campuses, or to alter its rules to control its violent nature. Lewis published an editorial in which he wrote, "There is nothing the matter with football. ... The game itself is one of the finest sports ever devised for the pastime of youth, and the pleasure of the public." While opposing unnecessary roughness, Lewis argued against proposed changes, noting that he did not want to watch "a game of ping-pong or marbles upon the football field."[17] Lewis asserted that football should remain "a strenuous competition, a scientific game played according to the rules of the game with vigor and force, sincerity and earnestness."[17]

Lewis later recalled, "There is no game like football. ... If it hadn't been for football there is no telling what I would be today. ... It gives you a general hardening and training which stands a man in good use in later life."[18]

Politician and lawyerEdit

File:President Theodore Roosevelt, 1904.jpg

Lewis was elected to the Cambridge City Council as a Republican where he served from 1899-1902.[1] He also served in the Massachusetts Legislature in 1903.

Lewis became a personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard alumnus, and was a guest of Roosevelt's at Oyster Bay in 1900.[19] In 1903 the United States Attorney for Boston Henry P. Moulton, at the direction of Roosevelt, appointed Lewis as an Assistant United States Attorney, making him the first African-American to hold such a position.[20] His appointment was reported in newspapers across the country.[21][22][23] Some wrote that the appointment was an effort by Roosevelt to show that "his championing of the negro is not political and is not limited to the southern states."[24] The New York Times downplayed Lewis's race, noting, "Lewis is said to be so light in color that only his intimate friends know him to be a negro."[25]

Some wrote that Roosevelt appointed Lewis in order to keep him in Boston, where he could continue coaching the Harvard football team. The author noted that Lewis "owes his appointment to the fact that he is an uncommonly good football coach and that President Roosevelt is a Harvard man."[26] Cornell has made several attempts to hire Lewis as its football coach. According to the story, Harvard men were "unwilling to lose Lewis's services in the football season, and they undertook to make his residence here so profitable that he would remain."[26] The article asserted that Lewis had been appointed as a member of the state legislature in 1902 for this reason, but lost his reelection campaign in 1903. It was then that an appeal was made to the President, who, it was said, "knows well the great value of Lewis to Harvard's football interests and the real necessity of keeping such a good coach on hand."[26]

First African-American Assistant Attorney GeneralEdit

In October 1910, President William Howard Taft appointed Lewis as the United States Assistant Attorney General. The appointment sparked a national debate over the appointment of an African-American to such a high office. A North Carolina newspaper wrote that the "Lucky Colored Man" would hold the "Highest Public Office Ever Held by One of His Race."[27][28] The appointment was reported to be "the highest office in an executive branch of the government ever held by a member of that race."[29][30][31] The Boston Journal wrote that Lewis had received "the highest honor of the kind ever paid to a negro," such that he then ranked in "a position of credit and influence second only to that occupied by Booker T. Washington.”[32]

The Washington Evening Star concluded that the appointment of Lewis to "a higher governmental position than any heretofore given to a colored man" would result in a confirmation battle with southern Democrats.[33] There was even a published report in December 1910 that opposition to Lewis was so strong that Taft had decided not to place Lewis's appointment before the Senate.[34] However, Taft did not withdraw the nomination, and a Georgia newspaper predicted a "Hard Fight Is Coming" on the nomination:

"Many southern members are firmly resolved that Lewis shall never be elevated to the high post of one of the five assistant attorneys general. The position carries with it a handsome salary, high social position and an entrée to White House functions. Whether or not Lewis would ever avail himself of these privileges, a number of southern Democrats feel that they do not want to be a party to elevating him to an eminence where such recognition would be his as a matter of official right.”[35]

After a fight waged by southern Senators for more than two months, the Senate confirmed Lewis as Assistant Attorney General in June 1911.[36] After being sworn into office, Lewis went to the White House where he personally thanked President Taft for the high honor.[37] Lewis's initial assignment was to defend the federal government against all Indian land depredation claims.[37] Lewis was a frequent caller at the White House and regularly attended White House functions during the Taft administration.[38]

Ouster from the American Bar AssociationEdit


In 1911, Lewis also became the first African American to be admitted to the American Bar Association (ABA).[8][9] However, in September 1911, Lewis faced a campaign for his ouster from the ABA. Though there was no racial restriction in the organization's charter, some threatened to secede from the organization if Lewis remained a member. Lewis's name had been submitted with others by the Massachusetts Bar Association, and his race had not been disclosed. The Southern delegates said they did not know he was a negro until he appeared in the convention hall.[39] Lewis, who was "the first of his race to be so honored", refused to resign.[40] When the ABA's executive committee voted to oust Lewis in early 1912, U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham sent a "spirited letter" to each of the 4,700 members of the ABA condemning the decision.[41][42] While northern newspapers congratulated Lewis and Wickersham for their stance,[43] a North Carolina newspaper criticized Lewis for his lack of "good manners" in refusing to resign:

The insistence of William H. Lewis of Boston, now an Assistant Attorney General, that he retain his membership in the American Bar Association notwithstanding objections is due condemnation upon other grounds than those of race. He would probably not have been elected if it had been known by the majority of delegate who he was. Having thus slipped into an organization, he should offer his resignation pending a real decision of the matter. This is simply what any one elected to any manner of organization through any sort of ignorance or misapprehension is required by good manners to do.[44]

Lewis became an advocate for African Americans in the legal profession. During the fight over his removal from the ABA, Lewis published an article in which he wrote that many white men "know intimately only the depraved, ignorant, vicious negros – those who helped to keep the dockets filled."[45] He called for "an army of negro lawyers of strong hearts, cool heads, and sane judgment", to help the large number of African Americans who were "exploited, swindled and misused".[45]

Private law practiceEdit

Lewis's tenure as Assistant Attorney General ended with Taft's Presidency in 1913. Taft recommended Lewis for appointment as a Massachusetts Superior Court judge, but the state's governor, Eugene Foss, declined to make the appointment.[46] Lewis returned to Massachusetts and entered the private practice of law. He developed a reputation as an outstanding trial lawyer who also made appearances before the United States Supreme Court.[46] He remained active in Republican politics while practicing law, and defended unpopular cases involving such matters as bootlegging, corruption, and racial discrimination.[47]

Civil rights leader and speakerEdit

File:Julia Ward Howe 2.png

Throughout his career, Lewis was outspoken on issues of race and discrimination. After a white barber in Cambridge refused to shave Lewis, he filed a suit seeking $5,000 in damages and successfully lobbied for the passage of a Massachusetts law prohibiting racial discrimination in places of public accommodation.[46][47][48][49]

In 1902, Lewis delivered an address on race relations to a gathering of Amherst College alumni. Lewis called race the "transcendent problem" facing the country:

"Yesterday the United States waged a war for humanity when tyranny and oppression had grown intolerable. ... Only a few hundreds of miles south of us are 10,000,000 people who are deprived of their rights, who are practically in a state of serfdom. Thousands of them have been lynched and shot for attempting to exercise the God given rights of every human being. The great Democratic party rolls on its honied tongue the sweet morsels of ‘consent of the governed’ and ‘equality of man.’ The Republican Party, progressive, patriotic, absorbed with expansion, is too busy to disturb the harmony of the spheres. They stand opposite making grimaces at each other; one says ‘Filipino;’ the other hasn’t the courage to say ‘Nigger.’ It is a beautiful game of football with the negro as the football.”[50]

He delivered the commencement address to the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute Class of 1910 urging them, despite adversity, to maintain their love for the South:

”Love your native Southland. Nine tenths of our people were born here. All our past is here. All our future is here. Here most of us will live and here pass to the great majority and be gathered to the ashes of our fathers. The most glorious history of our race is here in the Southland, the most glorious history of the negro race anywhere in the world is here. If we have suffered here, we have also achieved greatly here. Rejoice in everything Southern.”[51]

While serving as Assistant Attorney General, Lewis learned that a young African-American graduate of Harvard had been refused employment at a prominent Boston trust company on account of race. In a speech to Boston business leaders, Lewis said: "In Boston the outlook for the negro is far worse than it has been since the Civil War. I think the blood of three signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Abolitionists has run out."[52] He noted that, if he owned the majority of stock in a certain trust company, he would force the company to hire "the blackest man in Boston."[52] Lewis's speech reportedly drew "volumes of cheers" from the businessmen and "also from the colored waiters who cheered frequently."[52]

Lewis was one of three individuals to deliver an address at Boston's Symphony Hall memorial to abolitionist Julia Ward Howe following her death in 1910.[53]

In 1919, Lewis was one of the signatories to a call published in the New York Herald for a National Conference on Lynching, intended to take concerted action against the widespread practice of lynching and lawlessness in certain states.[54]


Lewis died in Boston of heart failure on January 1, 1949. He was interred at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.[55]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 "Signally Honored by President: William H. Lewis Selected by Taft; Boston Attorne Nominated as an Assistant Attorney General of the United States Following Government Service Here". Boston Morning Journal. 1911-03-01.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "President Taft Appoints Negro as Assistant Attorney General: Lucky Colored Man a Graduate of Amherst". Charlotte Daily Observer. 1910-10-27.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Evan J. Albright (Nov.-Dec. 2005). "William Henry Lewis: Brief life of a football pioneer: 1868-1949". Harvard Magazine.
  4. "Hampshire County. Easthampton". Springfield Republican. 1890-12-13.
  5. Alan Howard Levy (2003). Tackling Jim Crow, pp. 10-11. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-1597-5.
  6. Jacqueline M. Moore (2003). Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the struggle for racial uplift, p. 46. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-8420-2994-0.
  7. "Black History Month Spotlight: William Henry Lewis". College Football Hall of Fame. February 2007.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Clay Shampoe (2005). The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame: Honoring Champions of the Commonwealth, p. 52. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-1776-6.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Bill Lewis". infoplease.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Bob Royce. "All America Bill Lewis". LA84 Yet, Foundation.
  11. Berg, A. Scott (2013). Wilson. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 156. ISBN 978-0-399-15921-3.,,9780399159213,00.html.
  12. "Harvard Football: A Timeline of Tradition". Harvard University.
  14. William H. Lewis (1896). A Primer of College Football. Harper & Brothers.
  15. "New Book on Football: W. H. Lewis, the Harvard Coach Makes a Valuable Contribution to the Literature of the Game". Boston Morning Journal. 1896-06-15.
  16. "Lewis Talks Football: Harvard Expert Gives His Opinion on More Open Play". The Philadelphia Inquirer. 1904-12-13.
  17. 17.0 17.1 William H. Lewis (1905-11-18). "Improvement in Football Lies with Coaches and Players". The Biloxi Daily Herald.
  18. "When He Was an Athlete "Football is Best Exercise in World"". The Boston Journal. 1905-07-03.
  19. "W. H. Lewis". Boston Morning Journal. 1901-10-19.
  20. "Boston Negro Gets Office". The New York Times. January 13, 1903. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
  21. "Appointment of Negro: Assistant United States Attorney at Boston Is Colored". Dallas Morning News. 1903-01-13.
  22. "Boston Negro Slated: President Orders That W. H. Lewis be Appointed Assistant United States District Attorney". The Savannah Tribune. 1903-01-17.
  23. "Colored Man as Legal Officer. President Appoints W. H. Lewis, of Harvard, Assistant District Attorney At Boston". The Philadelphia Inquirer. 1903-01-13.
  24. "Boston Gets Colored Man at Federal Bar: W. H. Lewis Named by the President for Assistant U.S. District Attorney". The Evening Times (Pawtucket). 1903-01-13.
  25. "Boston Negro Gets Office: William H. Lewis Appointed Assistant United States Attorney" (PDF). The New York Times. 1903-01-13.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 "Roosevelt Kept Lewis for Harvard: The President Prevented the Football Coach from Going to Cornell by Giving Him an Office". The Tucson Citizen. 1903-01-19.
  27. "President Taft Appoints Negro as Assistant Attorney General: Lucky Colored Man a Graduate of Amherst and Harvard and Son of a Portsmouth, Va. Preacher -- Highest Public Office Ever Held by One of His Race". Charlotte Daily Observer. 1910-10-27.
  28. "Names Negro for Federal Post: William H. Lewis, Harvard Football Star, to be An Assistant Attorney General". Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. 1911-03-01.
  29. "Taft To Give Negro Attorney Important Office". The Evening Telegram (Salt Lake City). 1910-10-26.
  30. "Taft Will Appoint a Negro: W. H. Lewis of Boston to be Made Assistant Attorney General of United States". The Savannah Tribune. 1910-11-26. ("President Taft, it is stated, has decided to appoint a colored man to the highest office in an executive branch of the government ever held by a member of that race.")
  31. "Negro Gets High Office: One to be Named as Assistant Attorney General of United States". The Columbus Enquirer-Sun. 1910-10-27.
  32. "The Boston Journal". 1910-10-27.
  33. "Lewis Appointment Pleases Negros: Action of President Taft is Endorsed by a Number of White Newspaper". The Savannah Tribune (quotation reprinted from The Washington Evening Star). 1910-12-03.
  34. "Negro Appointment Killed". Belleville News-Democrat. 1910-12-17.
  35. "Hard Fight is Coming on Lewis' Nomination". The Savannah Tribune. 1911-06-03.
  36. "untitled". The Lexington Herald. 1911-06-15.
  37. 37.0 37.1 "Wiliam H. Lewis Takes Oath of Federal Position". Boston Morning Journal. 1911-03-28.
  38. "To Oust Negro Would Stir Up Hornet's Nest". Los Angeles Times. 1912-03-01.
  39. "Want Negro's Resignation". The Evening Telegram. 1911-09-13.
  40. "Negro Will Not Resign William H. Lewis Will Remain in American Bar Association, despite Protests of Southerners". The State (Columbia, SC). 1911-09-02.
  41. "Wickersham To Negro’s Defense: Opposes Action of Bar Association to Oust Him From Membership". The Duluth News Tribune. 1912-03-01.
  42. "Attorney General Fights for Negro". The Lexington Herald. 1912-03-06.
  43. "[New York World]; Exclusive Law Mongers". The Savannah Tribune. 1912-09-14.
  44. Charlotte Daily Observer, 1911-09-08
  45. 45.0 45.1 Lewis, William H. (1912-03-02). "More Young Colored Men Should Heed the Call of the Law". Savannah Tribune.
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 "Long Road to Justice - William H. Lewis". The Massachusetts Historical Society.
  47. 47.0 47.1 "William H. Lewis". African American Registry.
  48. "untitled". The New Haven Evening Register. 1893-05-26.
  49. "The Barber Refused: Foot Ball Lewis's Brother Has a Barber Fined $15". Boston Daily Journal. 1895-07-25.
  50. "Amherst Men Have Reunion: President Harris Tells Alumni the Small College is Not to be Driven Out by High Schools or Professional Schools; William H. Lewis Appeals for Negro". The Worcester Spy. 1902-03-19.
  51. "Tuskegee Commencement: Negro Students Receive Diplomas from Booker T. Washington; in Annual Address, William H. Lewis, of Boston, Urges Black Man to Love and Work for the South". The Montgomery Advertiser. 1910-05-27.
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 "Finds Outlook Bad in Hub for Negro: Colored Waiters Cheer as Lewis Tells Unitarians of 'Discrimination'". Boston Morning Journal. 1911-02-09.
  53. "Howe Memorial Speakers Chosen: Ex-Gov. Guild, William H. Lewis and Miss Mary Woolley to Pay Tribute". The Boston Journal. 1910-12-21.
  54. "Conference on Lynching May 5: Call Issued for National Meeting in New York to Consider Mob Violence in the United States". The Lexington Herald. 1919-04-27.
  55. "Lewis, William Henry (1868-1949)". Political Graveyard.

Additional sourcesEdit

Bond, Gregory. "The Strange Career of William Henry Lewis." Out of the Shadows: A Biographical History of African American Athletes. Edited by David K. Wiggins. (Little Rock, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 2006), pages 39–57.

External linksEdit

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