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Finding Elma Lewis in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections: Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts

About the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts

The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts

Founded by Elma Ina Lewis in 1950, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts was established to meet the social, cultural, and artistic needs of Boston's African American community.  Lewis believed in the importance of fostering the arts not only in the local Roxbury-Dorchester community but also in the African American community at large, and her philosophy was to instill racial pride while teaching.  The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts became a model and an inspiration for other schools across the country.  Several alumni founded arts schools, or became teachers at the school or other educational institutions, continuing the tradition.

The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts offered education in art, dance, drama, music, and costuming to pre-school children, school-aged children, and adults. On opening day in 1950, 25 students enrolled.  Elma Lewis purchased the Capezio Ballet Shop in Dorchester to provide revenue for student scholarships.  In 1966 the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts received its first federal grant and was incorporated as a non-profit organization.  That same year Lewis established the Playhouse in the Park program, a summer theater in Franklin Park that featured Duke Ellington and other celebrities.  In 1968 the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts moved to Temple Mishkan Tefila and its school in Roxbury, which had been donated by the Jewish community.  The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts established the Massachusetts Correctional Institute Norfolk Prison Theatre program in 1970, training inmates in all aspects of theater production including stage direction, stage design, sound, lighting, music, and acting.  Three years later the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts became a subsidiary of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.  In the 1970s and 1980s a series of arson fires caused $2 million in damages.  The school had a long history of financial difficulties and was placed under legal receivership from 1975 to 1977.  It closed in 1990.

Inside the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts records

The collection documents the founding, staffing, and management activities of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts; the school's long history of financial difficulties; and other national and local organizations related to African American culture in theater, music, dance, and the visual arts.

A highlight of the collection is the material relating to the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts' teaching and promotion of African American arts and artistic expression through its educational programs in art, dance, drama, music, and costuming, and a number of other programs the school organized such as Playhouse in the Park and MCI Norfolk Prison Theatre program.

The collection spans 1954-1992.  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.

Visual materials and materials documenting the school's fund-raising activities, financial operations, and public relations are found in the National Center of Afro-American Artists records (M42).

Digitized material from the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts

Over 70 records digitized in our collections mention the "Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts." Find them through a linked search of our Digital Repository here. 

The digitized National Center of Afro-American Artists also include photographs from the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts. Find them by visiting the National Center of Afro-American Artists digitized items 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