Earl Lewis

National Humanities Medal


Earl Lewis
Photo caption

—Photo courtesy of Earl Lewis

Earl Lewis, for writing America’s history and shaping America’s future. As a social historian and academic leader, Earl Lewis has made vital contributions to the field of Black history, educating generations of students, while also being a leading voice for greater diversity in academia and our Nation.

When Earl Lewis, the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, found out that he had won the National Humanities Medal, he was surprised. “Usually when I get a call from someone at the White House, they ask me to do something,” he says. “But I realized no, this is actually the other side. Not an assignment but an award.”

Lewis is no stranger to high profile work. He was previously president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and provost of Emory University. Currently, he is director of the Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan, and he’s working on a research project with eight other universities about the relationship between local histories, race, and the need for reparations that will culminate in a documentary to be made with PBS and WQED Pittsburgh.

Despite his success in academia, Lewis did not start college wanting to be a professor. After graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, the native Virginian was trying to figure out what he wanted to do next and went to the University of Minnesota to pursue a master’s degree. The year was 1978, and there weren’t many African Americans in graduate school.

“One of my closest friends and colleagues, Joe [William] Trotter—who’s at Carnegie Mellon University—Joe was ahead of me in graduate school, and he looks at me and says, ‘You’re going to be the next one of us,’ meaning the next African American to earn a doctorate from the University of Minnesota,” Lewis recalls. “He saw it before I did. And he was right, I would be the next person.”

After becoming the first in his family to earn a doctorate, Lewis landed a job at University of California, Berkeley. “Being hired at what was considered the premier public institution in the United States was certainly, at that point, probably one of my proudest moments,” Lewis recalls.

He taught at Berkeley from 1984 until 1989 and then was recruited to work at the University of Michigan. It was there that Lewis had his first taste of administrative work.

“Berkeley, in order to retain me but also to enhance my salary, wanted me to take on an administrative role, and I said I didn’t want to do that,” Lewis recalls. “I could go to Michigan and didn’t have to become an assistant dean. Little did I know that within a year of coming to Michigan, I would be directing the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.”

He built up what was one of the strongest programs in the country, recruiting such faculty members as Robin D. G. Kelley, who now works at University of California, Los Angeles, and Elsa Barkley Brown, who now teaches at University of Maryland, College Park.

“I came to understand I had an aptitude for administrative work,” Lewis says, and he went on to be a dean and vice provost of Rackham Graduate School. Later he became the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory University.

“What I learned is that administrative life actually is a nice balance,” Lewis says. “So much of academic life is about deferred gratification. You write an article, you write a book, and then it’s in production for 12, 18, sometimes 24 months before it comes out. Oftentimes, I’ve read something and go, ‘God I don’t even remember writing this.’ But with academic administration I could make a decision in the morning, and it had consequences by the afternoon.”

Research has played a huge part in Lewis’s career as well. When he became a dean in the late ’90s, he made a commitment to put out a book every other year. “I look back on it trying to figure out how did I pull that off?” Lewis says. He says he owes a lot to his coauthors, such as Nancy Cantor, Kelley, Heidi Ardizzone, Trotter, and Tera W. Hunter.

“I learned from my grandparents, who never went to college, that there are many kinds of ways to achieve immortality, but one sure way is to have it written down, because once it’s written down it’s there for all time. So my goal has been to work hard to produce as much as can be produced and to help others do so.”

Along with his coeditors, he created the book series American Crossroads, which focuses on books about race and ethnicity in the United States.

“Looking back, almost 50 books have been produced in that book series over the past twenty-some years, and half of those books have won prizes,” Lewis says. “We got two MacArthur award winners from that book series. That, to me, was really a legacy kind of effort.”

While provost at Emory (during which time he had to steer the school through a turbulent recession), he also served on the board for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 2012, he missed a meeting because he was in Brazil. When he attended the next board meeting, the chair of the board asked Lewis to step out of the room for a minute.

“I go, ‘Okay, I guess this is the penalty for missing a meeting last week,’” Lewis says with a laugh. When he was called back in, the board chair asked if he’d consider being president of the foundation. At the time, Lewis was a candidate for a university presidency as well.

He had a friend who had been head of human resources for Coca-Cola, Equifax, and other major companies, so he called her and asked which job he should pursue. “She said to me, ‘All right, let me just get this straight. You get to spend the next however many years giving money away or you get to spend those years begging for money. . . . Which is easier?” And that helped Lewis pick the job with the Mellon Foundation, which he started in 2013 and held until 2018.

Lewis returned to the University of Michigan in 2018 and told the dean that he would be there for ten years, then he was going to pursue something else. He knows that he won’t stop working, but he hopes to pursue different research and writing projects, and he hopes that his research and presence have helped others along the way.

“At one point, I was going to write a memoir titled Often First, Too Often Only,” he says, referring to how he was often the first African American to hold some of his leadership positions. “But, thankfully, in the last little bit, I’ve been the first at a handful of jobs but not the only African American to actually hold a job at that institution.”

Making it easier for African Americans to hold leadership positions has been one thing driving Lewis his whole career. “I wanted to make sure that every door I entered I left ajar so that others can enter.”

—Rosalind Early

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.