by Felicia D. Render, Archivist
One of Dr. Elsie M. Lewis’ major commitments to education involved her pursuit for rigorous historical scholarship. Lewis was an educator, consultant and scholar notable for her extensive research as an associate professor at Howard University. She was part of the first coterie of formally trained Black women historians of the 1940s; she served as chair of the History Department at Howard University (1964-1969); and she was the first African American contributor to the Journal of Southern History.
After graduating from Fisk University, Lewis earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago in 1946 with her dissertation, From Nationalism to Disunion: A Study of the Secession Movement in Arkansas, 1850-1861. Ten years later, Lewis joined the department of history at Howard University in 1956, specializing in the history of the American Negro and of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Her professorship position at Howard came as a result of well-known historian and Howard professor John Hope Franklin being appointed full professor and chair of the History Department at Brooklyn College that same year.
Lewis’ tenure at Howard University represented a remarkably ambitious change in the historical canon. From 1964 to 1969 Lewis served as chair of Howard University’s history department. During her tenure, she was responsible for two major structural changes in the history department’s curriculum. First, Lewis accomplished a good foundation for greater differentiation in courses available to graduate students without the expense of undergraduate instruction. Second, she oversaw the total revision of undergraduate courses during her tenure. This change became a major benefit for undergraduate students, as they were offered a broader choice of courses, including the option to concentrate in the field of history.
As a consultant, one of Lewis’ most fascinating acts of public engagement is a recording she helped to produce for Pepsi-Cola, Adventures in Negro History, Vol. III: The Afro-American’s Quest for Education: A Black Odyssey. Produced by Pepsi-Cola as part of a marketing campaign to connect with the African American community, this 1969 recording became the third record for the company’s series. Lewis served as the historical consultant for this public history project.
The Elsie M. Lewis papers is currently being preserved at the Amistad Research Center as a part of A Range of Experiences: Documenting African American Women's History and Achievements, an IMLS grant project. Her records primarily include correspondence, lecture and research notes, memorabilia and photographs related to her career as an educator, historian, scholar and consultant. Of note are course materials for her students at Howard University and Hunter College in New York. In essence, her emphasis on education and historical research focused on African American subject matter and analyzed Black politics from Emancipation to Reconstruction, which are well-documented within her papers.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
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