Lewis, Fred Edward (1912–2005)

By: Gail K. Beil

Type: Biography

Published: July 8, 2013

Updated: April 8, 2021

Fred Edward Lewis, educator, civil rights activist, and NAACP officer, was born on December 19, 1912, in Marion County. He was the son of Governor Edward Lewis. His parents died when he was young, and he lived with relatives in Marion County and in Marshall. At the age of thirteen he moved to Marshall to live with his stepmother, Murphy L. Emory, and his half sister in order to attend high school. (Marion County had no high school for Blacks.) Lewis graduated from Marshall Central High School and worked his way through Wiley College, where he received the bachelor’s degree in 1938. At Central High and Wiley College, Lewis was a classmate of civil rights leader, James Farmer, Jr., founder of the Congress of Racial Equality. The two were influenced by the same teachers and professors, primarily Henry B. Pemberton, principal of Central High School; James Farmer, Sr., an English professor; and debate coach Melvin Tolson of Wiley College.

After graduation from Wiley College, Lewis taught school in Marion County and became principal at the Arkadelphia School in Maud, Texas. During World War II he was drafted into the United States Navy in 1943. At the end of the war, he returned to Marshall, but instead of teaching, he went to work for an old employer, Ruth Starr Blake, and managed the Starr Estate in downtown Marshall. While working at the Starr Estate, he also attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison in the summers and earned his masters degree in school administration from Bishop College.

In the mid-1940s Fred Lewis became an advocate for the voting rights of African Americans. Until 1944 Blacks were barred from voting in the Democratic primary by state law. Even after the United States Supreme Court declared the Democratic White primary (Smith v. Allwright, 1944) unconstitutional, African Americans were still barred from voting by the Citizen’s Party of Harrison County. Determined to remove this subterfuge to voting, Fred Lewis and several other Blacks, assisted by the NAACP, filed suit in Perry v. Cyphers in 1948. As executive secretary of the Harrison County chapter of the NAACP, Lewis recruited new members; raised funds; contacted A. Maceo Smith, Texas state director of NAACP branches for legal assistance; and shepherded the case through the federal courts. On January 23, 1951, the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ended the White primary in Harrison County. The decision was both precedent-setting and ironic, for it was in Harrison County in 1878 that Texas’s first White Citizen’s Party was formed with the purpose in mind of disenfranchising its majority African American population.

In 1954 Fred Lewis returned to the classroom in Marshall. He was appointed principal of Dogan Elementary in 1964. After retiring from the public schools in 1978, he was very active with his alma mater, Wiley College, and a number of community projects. He was a charter member and president of the Wiley College National Alumni Association, a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, a Mason, and a lay leader at Ebenezer United Methodist Church of Marshall. He was also closely involved with the United Negro College Fund, as well as the Boy Scouts, who awarded him their highest honor—the Silver Beaver Award. In addition, he was a board member of the Harrison County Cancer Society and Harrison County Retired Teachers Association. Lewis also worked tirelessly with the Powdermill Cemetery to restore and maintain this historically significant final resting place for African Americans. In 1981 he was elected to the Marshall Independent School District Board and served until 1990. In 1997 he received the doctor of humane letters from Wiley College in recognition of his dedication to community service. His alma mater also endowed a scholarship in his name.

Fred Lewis was twice married during his life. In 1940 he married Bernice Peppers; she died in 1972. He married Alma Perry in 1974, and she died in the late 1990s. Neither marriage produced any children. Lewis died on March 11, 2005, in Los Angeles, California. He is buried in Rose Hill Garden Cemetery in Marshall, Texas.

Fred Lewis, Interview by the author, January 3, 2000. Fred Lewis Papers, Harrison County Historical Museum, Marshall, Texas. Obituary: A Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the Life of Dr. Fred Edward Lewis, March 19, 2005.

  • Education
  • Educators
  • School Principals and Superintendents
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activists

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Gail K. Beil, “Lewis, Fred Edward,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 13, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lewis-fred-edward.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 8, 2013
April 8, 2021

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