Former Scripps professor, ‘the Godmother of African American Art,’ passes away at 99

A woman smiles into the camera
Samella Lewis, a legendary figure in the movement to elevate and celebrate Black art, as well as a former Scripps professor, passed away at 99 in May. (Courtesy: Ella Strong Denison Library)

Samella Lewis, a fierce pioneer in the art world who was deemed “the Godmother of African American Art,” passed away in Torrance, California at the age of 99 this May. She taught at Scripps College from 1970 to 1984, influencing hundreds of students and leaving an indelible mark on Claremont. 

She was the first Black woman to obtain a doctorate in fine art and art history. She organized the first professional conference for Black artists in the United States. She co-founded the first Black-owned art book publishing house. And she was the first tenured Black faculty member at Scripps College. 

Growing up in Louisiana in the 1920s, however, Lewis didn’t expect to become a scholar of such legendary importance. 

“When I was growing up in New Orleans, I didn’t even know what those degrees were,” she told The Scripps Report in 1974. But “there was always one marvelous teacher” who encouraged her to keep studying. 

Lewis started college at Dillard University in New Orleans and transferred to Hampton University in Virginia, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree. She went on to earn a Master’s degree and two PhDs from Ohio State University, launching her career as a sculptor, filmmaker, painter, printmaker, curator, author, scholar, mentor and pioneer. 

“I was greatly influenced by her because the Black community at Claremont during that time was very close,” said Valerie Coachman-Moore PO ’75. “We gathered across campuses, and there was always something going on.” 

After Coachman-Moore graduated and moved to the East Coast, she continued reading Lewis’s articles and books. When she moved back to Los Angeles, she attended Lewis’s lectures and spent time with her occasionally. 

Lewis “was quiet, but a force to be reckoned with,” Coachman-Moore said. “She was kind, she was patient, she took time with you — even though she was this huge person. You didn’t know she was a huge person until after you’d stepped back and took another view. There was a softness and a fierceness that were juxtaposed within her. She was amazing.”

In 1950, Lewis began teaching at Morgan State University in Baltimore, followed by Florida A&M University and State University of New York, Plattsburg. 

While in New York, Lewis developed an interest in Asian art and language and left for Taiwan in the early 1960s to work at Tunghai University and visit mainland China. When she returned to the US, Lewis and her family settled in Los Angeles, where she taught Chinese at the University of Southern California and held positions at Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Dominguez Hills. 

By the time Lewis became a professor at Scripps College in 1970, she was fascinated by the interactions and overlaps between African, Asian and Caribbean art. 

“I never taught courses where I closed the door: this is African art and this is Caribbean art. I tried to show interrelationships,” Lewis said in an oral history in 1992. “I might bring the two together in Surinam, which is Caribbean in spirit but South American in location. So it’s a challenge. And I might call it African art, but I kind of move beyond. I might call it art of Nigeria or a certain period of Nigeria. And then I also do not deal with the art separate from the people, but identify the art almost through the people,” Lewis said. 

At Scripps, Lewis wasn’t only a professor.

“She had to wear so many hats. Counselor, admissions counselor, support to students — she couldn’t just be an art history professor,” said Crystal Jones, who was a first year at Scripps during Lewis’s last year teaching and was Scripps’ director of development until this year. 

Jones said the admission department often involved Lewis in the process of admitting Black students — all while she taught courses, mentored students, brought artists to campus and held gallery and museum positions in Los Angeles. 

Lewis recalled helping students choose where to study abroad. 

“Scripps [College] had a fine junior year abroad program. I was really fortunate to work at the Claremont Colleges. I sent students to the University of Ghana. I sent students to the University of Nigeria. I sent students to Ethiopia. I sent them to numerous European capitals,” Lewis said in the oral history recorded in 1992, adding that she tried to get the Black students at the college to go to African countries. 

Lewis also recalled a “thrilling situation” that she encountered at Scripps when one of the students wanted to study abroad at the University of Science and Technology in Ghana at Kumasi. 

“They wouldn’t accept [the Scripps student] because they didn’t have adequate backgrounds. The University in Ghana was still on the English system,” Lewis said. “And I was happy about that, because you know how highfalutin the Claremont Colleges are,” Lewis said, laughing. 

Lewis became an influential force in the Los Angeles art scene during her time at Scripps. She established three galleries in the region, founded the Museum of African American Art and co-founded Concerned Citizens for Black Art to make recommendations to museums about educational programming. 

At the same time, Lewis extensively wrote and edited work about Black art, establishing it as an art historical genre. She co-edited two volumes of a contemporary guide to Black artists called “Black Artists on Art,” co-founded a journal of Black art and published the seminal textbook “Art: African American.”

Lewis said that she wasn’t born a writer but became an author out of necessity. 

“I didn’t see anyone putting together information on Black artists, and I’d had experience with Black artists since my elementary school days, and I knew that there were very many good ones,” Lewis told The Scripps Report in 1974. “So I decided if no one else was going to write it down, then I was going to learn to write and put it down so people could read it.”

Samella Lewis lives on at Scripps in spirit and through a scholarship program and art collection in her name. 

“She is someone that raised Scripps’ level of consciousness around non-European art scholarship. She brought it and expanded the curriculum to the rest of the world,” said Jones, who worked with Lewis in the early 2000s to set up the Samella Lewis Scholarship at Scripps. Every year, one Black student at Scripps receives the scholarship for their scholastic achievement, character, leadership and responsibility. 

“We wanted to really highlight the fact that she was the first African American tenured professor at Scripps and the first African American woman in the country to get a PhD in art history,” Jones said. “We wanted it to be something for African American students, to instill a sense of welcome and belonging [and a sense that] there are people that have gone before you,” she said. 

In 2007, the college also created the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery’s Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection in her honor with the goal of acquiring works by Lewis and other contemporary artists, focusing on women and Black artists.

I carried away an understanding of the place of art in freedom struggles, for people who are making a statement and how art connects to justice,” Coachman-Moore said about what she learned from Lewis.  

For Coachman-Moore, Lewis’s legacy is “dare to do it and do it. It’s about getting it done. Her museum, her books, her writings. She wasn’t distracted. She kept bringing it.”

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