When I leave here, the body of my work will be all these wonderful people out there in the world, doing great things.

Elma Ina Lewis '43


Born in Roxbury to parents who had emigrated from Barbados, Ms. Lewis was dedicated to teaching Black and Brown youth education through the arts. She is one of Boston’s most important Black female luminaries in the arts, education, and civil rights work. Her work impacted and continues to impact thousands of people in Roxbury, Boston, and around the world.

  • In 1943, Ms. Lewis graduated from Emerson College, financing her education by acting in local theater productions.
  • In 1944, Ms. Lewis earned a master’s in education from Boston University.
  • In 1950, Ms. Lewis opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury to promote arts and communication education for Boston’s Black youth.
  • In 1966, Ms. Lewis founded Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, offering free summer performances that were revived in recent years continuing her work and her legacy.
  • In 1968, Ms. Lewis founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), which brought students from the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts to tour in stage productions on a national level.
  • In 1970, Ms. Lewis established Boston’s annual holiday production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, which has been running for the last 50 consecutive years.
  • In 1970, Ms. Lewis established the Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) Norfolk Prison Theatre program. Participants created several productions in which they were entirely responsible for writing, acting, music, and production.
  • Ms. Lewis was one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 1981.

After a lifetime of service, Elma Lewis passed away on New Year’s Day, 2004. She was the recipient of over 400 awards and 28 honorary degrees. Her former students continue in her footsteps all over the United States, many of them working in the performing arts in Boston.

Ms. Lewis possessed unwavering dedication to hope, education, creativity and intellectual development through dance, music, poetry, and the visual arts for the Black community in schools, theaters, public parks, and prisons.

The Elma Lewis Legacy Circle, family and friends of Elma Lewis, provide guidance and support for the continued growth and development of the ELC. The Legacy Circle supports the ongoing preservation of Elma Lewis’ enduring legacy as part of the ELC’s core mission and purpose.

Learn more about Ms. Lewis on the website of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

The header image on this page is the Portrait of Elma Lewis, 1978, courtesy of photographer Georgia Litwack.