Elma Lewis Living Stories Project

If you walk down the streets in Roxbury, Dorchester, Boston and surrounding areas, it is impossible not to meet someone who passionately will tell you a story about "what Ms. Elma Lewis taught me." They will tell you how their lives have been deeply impacted by the seven decades of Elma Lewis's work. They will tell you about her unwavering dedication to hope, education, creativity and intellectual development through dance, music, poetry and the visual arts for youth and people of all ages in schools, prisons, theaters and public parks.

Elma Lewis engaged with artists and political leaders throughout the United States, and the globe, including Duke Ellington, Jimmy Carter, and the former Ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis, who is the first Black woman to earn the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation MacArthur Fellowship, also known as "The Genius Grant," is also set to be honored by the City of Boston on February 25, 2020 as part of Boston’s Black Excellence 2020 initiative.

Yet today, unless you are speaking with someone who knew her directly, people do not know who she was.

This Living Stories Project intends to bring the impact of Elma Lewis’s work into public memory as a core part of Black history, arts, and education in the Boston area and in the world.

Interested in sharing your story about Ms. Elma Lewis? We would love to hear from you. Please contact us at elmalewis_livingstories [at] emerson.edu (elmalewis_livingstories[at]emerson[dot]edu).

Call to Artists

The Call to Artists is one of many ongoing approaches in the Elma Lewis Living Stories Project, which will also include collaborating with those who knew Ms. Elma Lewis best to document in audio recordings, photograph, video, and film the stories they wish to share about her.

Visual art is a powerful form of storytelling for all ages that can embody and communicate the soul and heart of what the storyteller wants to say about ways Ms. Elma Lewis impacted them and their communities—and say so in their own tones, languages, interpretations and forms.

By collaborating in intentional relationship with community members, this project intends to move stories beyond the traditional cloisters of academic and institutional archival processes. And to also thoughtfully circulate these stories in the form of artwork throughout vibrant and interactive community spaces, such as cafés, murals and schools.

The Living Stories Project team hopes this work will spark and inspire ongoing conversations with community members whose lives were impacted by Ms. Elma Lewis or who are learning about her for the first time.

The header image on this page titled Playhouse in the Park, ca. 1970, and depicts several people rehearsing on an outdoor stage in front of empty seats. Image courtesy of Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections.

Additional image credits: “war reporter” photo for “Share Your Story” by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash @alex_andrews


Email elmalewis_livingstories [at] emerson.edu (elmalewis_livingstories[at]emerson[dot]edu).

Sponsored by the Elma Lewis and Social Justice Collaborative at Emerson College.