Joseph Vance Lewis, attorney, educator, businessman, and author, was born on December 25, 1863, in Houma, Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, to Vance “Doc” Lewis and Rose (Williams) Lewis. There is conflicting information regarding the exact year of his birth. He may have been born in 1863, based on his age of seven listed in the 1870 census. In his autobiography, Lewis indicated that he was born into slavery well before the Civil War (perhaps about 1853) and that he remembered the announcement of emancipation. Other sources give the later 1860s—perhaps 1868 or 1869—for his birth. After his parent’s death Lewis began working and saved sixty-four dollars toward his higher education. He enrolled at Leland College in New Orleans. There he trained for the teaching profession and finished the Normal Course about 1890.
After moving to Texas, Lewis earned a teaching certificate from the Normal School in Orange, Texas. He taught in Angelina County and later served as principal of a school in Lufkin. However, Lewis had always dreamed of becoming a lawyer and began pursuit of his ultimate goal after witnessing the eloquence of an African-American lawyer in a court room.
Lewis earned a law degree in Michigan in 1894 but wanted more education. In 1897 he graduated from the Chicago College of Law and was admitted to the bar to practice before all courts of Illinois. In October 1897 he was admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court. He moved to Houston, Texas, in 1901 and settled in the historic Freedmen’s Town community of Fourth Ward. In the early 1900s he married Pauline Gray, an educator who served as librarian for the Colored Branch of the Houston Public Library. They were married in Antioch Baptist Church by Rev. F. L. Lights.
Lewis established a partnership with L. W. Greenly and was admitted to the Texas Bar in 1904. He became widely known as the first African-American lawyer to win a case before a Harris County jury in favor of a black client accused of murder. This case attracted many other clients, however, Lewis was soon accused of irregularity with some of his cases. Lewis suspected that others, who may have envied his success, had undermined his law practice. Although found not guilty and not convicted, Lewis was barred from practicing law for six months and, following another charge, was barred from criminal law cases for seven years. Undaunted, he began handling civil cases, including 3,820 divorce cases, before he resumed his full practice.
In 1907 Lewis hired Lincoln R. Jones, a prominent African-American builder and contractor to construct a home for him and his wife. “Van Court,” their one-story wood frame cottage was located on 1218 Wilson at Andrews in Freedmen’s Town. His home was strategically located across from the streetcar stop so that potential clients would have no problem getting to him.
Lewis’s law office was located at 419 ½ Milam in a building where other African-American professionals practiced in downtown Houston. In 1915 he was among nine attorneys, including J. M. Adkins, L. V. Allen, G. O. Burgess, H. M. Broyles, Winston M. C. Dickson, W. L. Jackson, Madison G. Lewis, Oscar C. Millard and A. G. Perkins, who represented a Houston African-American population of about 30,000. Other African-American professionals located downtown included twelve physicians, a few dentists, and businessmen such as Robert L. Andrews and O. P. DeWalt.
In 1919 J. Vance Lewis was cofounder of Twentieth Century State Bank and Trust Company of Houston, with initial subscriptions of $2,000, but the venture met with little success. In 1920 he was a candidate for district court judge on the “Black and Tan” Republican ticket. During that year, he also moved his office to his home, which was featured in a Houston Informer newspaper ad. In 1922 Lewis joined the Colored Commercial Club, a newly-formed organization designed to educate African-American Houstonians to foster black-owned businesses in the community.
Lewis was known for his eloquent and “fiery” speeches and spent time between his cases traveling across the country promoting the Republican Party and encouraging other African Americans to educate themselves, work hard, and pursue their goals. He also advocated establishing racial harmony and equality between the races. Lewis may have married a total of four times and fathered five children.
He died on April 24, 1925, and was buried in Olivewood Cemetery. In 2013 his home still stood at 1218 Wilson at Andrews Street in the historic Fourth Ward community. In 1985 the home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, received a Texas Historical Commission marker in 2007, and a City of Houston Protected Landmark designation in 2007. The home’s deterioration belies that it was once known as “Van Court” where Lewis held court with other leaders to help protect Houston’s African Americans from unlawful treatment. A Texas Historical Marker was dedicated in Lewis’s honor on April 27, 2013.