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Earl Lewis

Foundation president, historian and academic administrator Earl Lewis was born in 1955 in Norfolk, Virginia. Lewis attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he graduated in 1978 with his B.A. degree in history and psychology. After graduating from Concordia College, Lewis enrolled in the University of Minnesota and received his M.A. degree in history in 1981. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1984 from the University of Minnesota.

In 1984, Lewis was hired as an assistant professor in the department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Then, in 1989, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan as an associate professor of history and African American and African Studies. One year after his arrival at the University of Michigan, Lewis was appointed as the director of the university’s Center for African American and African Studies. He became a full professor of history and African American and African Studies in 1995, and a faculty associate in the Program in American Culture. In 1997, Lewis was promoted to interim dean of the University of Michigan’s Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. Shortly thereafter, in 1998, Lewis became the vice provost for academic affairs for graduate studies and dean; and, in 2003, he was appointed the Elsa Barkley Brown and Robin D.G. Kelley Collegiate Professor of History and African American and African Studies. Then, in 2004, he was hired as both provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and as the Asa Griggs Candler professor of history and African American studies at Emory University. Lewis was Emory University’s first African American provost and the highest-ranking African American administrator in the university’s history. In 2013, he left Emory University and assumed a new role as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Lewis has edited, authored or co-authored seven books. They include the 1991 monograph In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, 2000’s To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, 2001’s Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White, and 2004’s The African American Urban Experience: From the Colonial Era to the Present. Lewis is also the author of more than two dozen scholarly articles and has served on several academic and community boards, including the American Historical Review, Council of Graduate Schools, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Academy of Science’s Board on Higher Education and the Workforce, and the Center for Research Libraries. He became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008.

Earl Lewis was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 18, 2013.

Accession Number

A2013.255

Sex

Male

Interview Date

10/18/2013

Last Name

Lewis

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Schools

Concordia College

University of Minnesota

Indian River High School

First Name

Earl

Birth City, State, Country

Norfolk

HM ID

LEW14

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Favorite Quote

We Serve As, Rather Than We Are, Before Titles

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

11/15/1955

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Steamed Blue Crab

Short Description

History professor, academic administrator, and foundation chief executive Earl Lewis (1955 - ) , author of In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, was Emory University’s first African American provost and the highest-ranking African American administrator in the university’s history.

Employment

University of California, Berkeley

University of Michigan

Emory University

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

University of Minnesota

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Earl Lewis' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis shares his memories of his father, Earl Lewis, Sr.

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis describes how his parents met and his father's death

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis describes the importance of education in his maternal family history

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis describes his maternal grandmother's personality

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Earl Lewis describes his maternal grandfather's personality

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Earl Lewis talks about the churches his family attended

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Earl Lewis shares his earliest childhood memories, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis shares his earliest childhood memories, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis recalls the diversity of his childhood neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis describes his childhood, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis describes his childhood, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis reflects on the opportunities he had as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Earl Lewis describes how his mother took care of him and his brother after their father died

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Earl Lewis describes his childhood responsibilities

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Earl Lewis describes his childhood personality

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Earl Lewis describes his experience attending Crestwood Elementary, Junior High, and High School in Chesapeake, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis talks about his experiences of racism at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis talks about his experiences of racism at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis describes integrating the Key Club at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis describes his mother's experience as a teacher at an integrated elementary school in Chesapeake, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis describes his decision to attend Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis describes his initial impressions of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Earl Lewis talks about the black community at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and why it has diminished

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Earl Lewis describes his experience studying psychology and history at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Earl Lewis describes his experience at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis talks about overcoming his ambivalence about an academic career

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis describes his experience as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis describes his experience as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis talks about his friends and mentors in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis talks about being hired as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis describes his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Earl Lewis talks about the reception of his doctoral thesis and his book, "In Their Own Interests"

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Earl Lewis describes what his dissertation taught him about the history of his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Earl Lewis describes the research methods he used on his dissertation at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Earl Lewis describes the quantitative study of social history at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis describes interviewing at the University of California, Berkeley

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis talks about his mentors at the University of California, Berkeley and publishing his first book

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis talks about his conflict with Henry Lewis Suggs after the publication of his first book

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis describes his decision to leave the University of California, Berkeley for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis describes his decision to leave the University of California, Berkeley for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis describes the University of Michigan's Center for Afroamerican and African Studies in 1989

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Earl Lewis talks about his experience directing the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis talks about publishing "The Young Oxford History of African Americans"

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis talks about his interdisciplinary approach to African American studies

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis talks about the work of one of his students, Merida Rua, and how the study of African American history has changed

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis talks about writing his book with Heidi Ardizzone "Love on Trial," pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis talks about writing his book with Heidi Ardizzone "Love on Trial," pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis talks about the response to "Love on Trial"

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Earl Lewis talks about the structure of "Love on Trial"

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Earl Lewis talks about his approach to publication

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Earl Lewis talks about balancing his administrative obligations with his teaching, publishing, and family

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Earl Lewis talks about his family and divorce from Jayne London

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis describes his role in the University of Michigan's affirmative action cases, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis describes his role in the University of Michigan's affirmative action cases, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis talks about the importance of the University of Michigan's affirmative action cases

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis talks about the presidents of the University of Michigan during his tenure

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis describes becoming Provost of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2004

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis describes his experience as Provost of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Earl Lewis talks about the diversity of staff and faculty at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Earl Lewis talks about leaving Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Earl Lewis talks about becoming President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 10 - Earl Lewis talks about becoming President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, pt. 2

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis talks about the financial problems faced by universities

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis describes his plans for promoting diversity and performing arts through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis talks about the future of African American studies departments, pt. 1

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis talks about the future of African American studies departments, pt. 2

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis reflects on how race and his childhood affected his first book, "In Their Own Interests"

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Earl Lewis describes the problems facing African American historians in the academy

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Earl Lewis talks about other organizations that fund the arts, sciences, and humanities

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Earl Lewis shares his views on the future of the humanities

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Earl Lewis reflects on his life's journey, pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Earl Lewis reflects on his life's journey, pt. 2

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Earl Lewis reflects on his legacy and how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$7

DAStory

9$5

DATitle
Earl Lewis describes his experience at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Earl Lewis describes becoming Provost of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2004
Transcript
And when I got into the University of Minnesota [Minneapolis, Minnesota] right after I finished Concordia [College in Moorhead, Minnesota], so I left Concordia and went right to Minnesota with, to University of Minnesota, with a break in the summer where I worked for Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company and I designed an attitude survey for the whole company and implemented that attitude survey using my psychology degree. And then a few months later I left there, they hired someone else to do the data analysis and I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, initially just to get a masters. I was gonna get a masters. And I got into graduate school and I discovered I still, if, if I have something to work on, it was actually finding my own voice as a writer because I realized undergrad and even early graduate school, you're reading so many different people and you're trying to figure out how to be like one of them. And then Russ [Russell Menard] took me aside one day and he said, "Earl, let me tell you a secret." I said, "Sure Russ." He says, "I started out thinking I was gonna be the next generation Perry Miller and only discovered I couldn't do the work in intellectual colonial history the way Perry Miller did. And then I became an economic historian and it refocused who I was and I was able to find by own voice." He says, "Just think about who you wanna be. Stop thinking about who all these other folks have been, and see if you can't find your own voice." That was actually quite valuable and-- So my second year of graduate school in the masters program I thought, "You know what? I may be able to get a Ph.D." Meanwhile Joe Trotter [Joe William Trotter, Jr.] was ahead of me. So Joe pulled me aside and he says, "Earl," and I said, "What?" He said, "I got a prediction." I go "What's that's, Joe?" He goes, you gone be the next African American to get a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in the History Department. I said, "Well there are people ahead of me." He says, "I know. But you will be." And, and, and I to this day I thank him 'cause it was at that point where he was telling me something that I was just discovering about myself. That yeah, I could do this. And, and so after getting the masters then I talked to the professors and applied to get into the Ph.D. and, and with an understanding and said, "And this is how long I plan to be in graduate school." So I, tell me now if I can, I don't wanna be here more than six total years. I've had enough Minnesota winters. I know exactly how many more I plan. And they all agreed they thought I could move at pace and Joe had been able to do it in five and I figured I could do it in six. He was on full scholarship the whole time and I wasn't. And, and I did. And, and even in, even at the university I ended up discovering that I could do a lot of things in that graduate program and so I ended up my, my major was, area was U.S. History. But I also had a heavy secondary major in African Peoples History. And so I used to always joke with my own doctoral students who would complain about exams, I'd say "Look, I took an eight hour written exam in U.S. History. I took an eight hour written exam in African History. And then I took a two hour oral exam. So that was sixteen hours of writing. And four hours I think, you can survive." And, and, and that was the sense and I remember talking, Allen Isaacman and Lansine Kaba and I said "Why are you guys making me take this eight hour written exam.? I'm not an Africanist. I mean it's not my major area." And they, they said, "because we know you can do it."$So what made you decide to go to Emory [University in Atlanta, Georgia] then? What was that, that decision?$$It was probably driven by three factors. One, several people had come to me several times and said "Earl are you gonna be the next provost of the University of Michigan?" And I said, "I don't know." And my friend and colleague, Paul Courant, had been the acting provost when Joe [B. Joseph White] was the acting president. When Mary Sue [Coleman] came in, there were some who believed then there was gone be a search process for the next president, I mean provost. And Mary Sue decided that she was comfortable with Paul staying in that role. So she lifted the title of "acting" and made him provost. I said "Okay. So my, not gonna happen here at this moment." I get a call from Spencer Stuart's search consulting firm and the search consultant called me and says, "Earl last time we talked was about five years ago, and you said to me call you back in five years when your daughter is about to graduate from high school. By my records your daughter is about to graduate from high school. Would you be interested in thinking about being the provost at Emory?" And I said to her, "Paula (ph.) that is really good. I have dealt with a lot of search consultants but I've never known anyone to maintain a five year tickler file." I said, "You got, at least you got my interest here." And she said, "Well things have changed at Emory." And I said (unclear) 'cause I, I knew a little bit about Emory. And I go, I'm not sure to what the new president and at least consider it. And then several other peoples said to me, "Just think about it Earl." So I went and had a conversation in, with the folks at Emory. I met [James] Jim Wagner, who years older than I am and had grown up in the other place. If I had been a Virginia boy, he's a Maryland boy. And so, and we hit it off. And I thought "Okay. I, maybe I could be provost." So I went back to Michigan and I explained to them, to Mary Sue here's my, here's what I'm thinking. They offered me two more jobs (laughter). They were making me vice president of research and the head of international if I stayed. And I started to laugh. I had, and by that time I had remarried and, Susan [Witlock] and I were married, and I said and, and Susan had lived in Ann Arbor longer than I had and, and, I said "Well I can stay at Michigan and have three jobs and get paid for one, or I can go to Emory and be a provost and have the title that goes with those, in some ways, the elements of those three jobs." And so, and I went back to Mary Sue and just asked a question, a little bit about her view of the tenure of the provost and when that may open up again and whether or not I, help me think about whether or not I'd be better off biding my time at Michigan or going and being a provost in the next few months. And I didn't get the answer I wanted. And, and, and so I left. Now irony of ironies, right, I get to Emory, I'm there a year and I get a call back because Paul's stepping down as provost and, and would I come back and I go, "No." It was a missed moment. I several, board members had thought I was gone be the next provost and several, much of the campus had thought I would have been, it didn't happen, that door is closed. I had made at least a five year commitment to Emory, and I try not to renege on those kind of pledges and promises.$$And so you this, you're coming in as provost is historic--$$Yeah.$$--for Emory.$$It's historic for Emory--$$--because there's no African American provost--$$I was the highest ranked African American in Emory's history, ever period. I mean, and to be honest if you look across the South there probably have only been two African Americans that have been into the level of provost or above, or certainly the level of provost at one of the major southern universities. The other person was Bernadette Gray-Little at Chapel Hill [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]. And Bernadette and I were provost about the same time. And, but if you go through the history and, I mean, and truth, I mean sad truth is that right now and among the AAU [Association of American Universities] institutions, the leading research universities in the United States, there are no African American provosts. I mean in sixty-something institutions, there's one fellow who was African-born who I think has become a naturalized citizen who is provost at [University of Illinois] Urbana-Champaign [HM Ilesanmi Adesida], but when I stepped out of this role there is no one. So it's even more than Emory its, there's initial in my view, where the larger complex of American, higher education in particular at the major research universities.