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Finding Elma Lewis in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections: National Center of Afro-American Artists

About the National Center of Afro-American Artists

The National Center of Afro-American Artists

Founded by Elma Ina Lewis in 1968 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the National Center of Afro-American Artists was established in response to concerns raised at a conference of African American artists who met in Chicago in the mid-1960s, stemming from the lack of a comprehensive, national institutional center for African American artists.  As a Boston-based, professional, multi-disciplinary arts organization, the National Center of Afro-American Artists was created to fill this void. 

The National Center of Afro-American Artists became not only a regional platform but also a national one for African American visual and performing artists.  In 1969 the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists was established as a division of the National Center of Afro-American Artists to educate, promote, exhibit, and collect African, Caribbean, and Afro American fine arts.  In 1973 the National Center of Afro-American Artists brought under its wing the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, which became the teaching division of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.   

During a time of political and racial strife, Lewis sought to bring peace and unity through the School's Playhouse in the Park program, a summer theater in Franklin Park which began in 1966 and featured Duke Ellington and other celebrities.  The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts closed in 1990 after many years of financial difficulty.  As part of its administrative duties, the National Center of Afro-American Artists oversaw the public relations, financial, and development activities of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

Since its founding, the National Center of Afro-American Artists has had a wide-reaching influence across the United States and overseas through projects with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, Massachusetts); international partnerships with Senegal, Ivory Coast, Barbados, and Haiti; and the annual Christmas musical, Black Nativity, which premiered in 1970. 

Inside the National Center of Afro-American Artists records

The collection documents the founding, administration, financial operations (including the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists), and personnel of the Center; the Center's active involvement in the African American and arts communities through its performances, ensembles, and events; and other national and local organizations related to African American culture in theater, music, dance, and the visual arts. The collection spans 1924-1998 (bulk dates, 1970-1979).  Early material relates to information files on renowned performers, including Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, and Katherine Dunham.  A series of unexplained arson fires at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.  Most of the records from the 1970s have survived; however, some records from the 1980s did not.

A highlight of the collection is the visual material which includes photographs, videotapes, films, and posters.  These materials largely document Elma Lewis' personal and professional life, and performances, ensembles, events, and exhibits produced by the National Center of Afro-American Artists, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, or the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

For materials documenting the administration of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts prior to 1973, see the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts records (M43).

Digitized material from the National Center of Afro-American Artists

Over 60 photographs and documents are digitized and available from the National Center of Afro-American Artists records to view online. Images include photos from Playhouse in the Park, Black Nativity, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, along with other candids of staff and community members. 

Visit our digital repository to view the images here

Questions?

Questions about how to access the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections records? Need help getting started on your research journey?

Email us at: archives@northeastern.edu

The National Center of Afro-American Artists Today

The National Center of Afro-American Artists remains "a singular black cultural arts institution in New England for it longevity and the quality and scope of its work. It has a demonstrated history of public service celebrating of the world heritage of black people since 1968. A commitment to excellence in the arts and wholesome cultural development remain its hallmark."

Visit their website to find out about current events and organization news.