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Over the course of a distinguished multi-faceted career, artist, art historian, museum curator, and activist, Samella Sanders Lewis became a peerless advocate for African American involvement in the arts. While she works in a variety of media, Lewis is best known as a printmaker. Often utilizing the human figure, her oeuvre speaks to the struggle and strength of the African American community.

Growing up in segregated New Orleans exposed Lewis to racial prejudice; art offered a powerful vehicle to express her response to human injustice. As a youth, she was influenced by comic books, an affinity borne out in her own graphic art. In 1941, she received a scholarship to attend nearby Dillard University. Dillard professor Elizabeth Catlett (and lifelong friend) recognized Lewis’ remarkable potential and advised her to transfer to the Hampton Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University). She graduated from Hampton—where John Biggers was among her classmates—in 1945. At the recommendation of her instructor Viktor Lowenfeld, she immediately joined the school’s art faculty and taught for two years. Lowenfeld also encouraged her to attend graduate school, suggesting Ohio State University. Lewis initially planned to pursue a printmaking degree, but took so many courses in art history that her advisor suggested she major in “studio art history,” effectively combining both master’s degrees. She received her PhD from Ohio State in 1951, becoming the first female African American to earn a doctorate in art history. While completing her dissertation, she taught at Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore. By 1953, she had been named art department chair at Florida A&M University, where she organized the first professional conference for African American artists, the National Conference of Artists, that same year.

As a graduate student, Lewis developed an interest in Asian art, which she continued to foster when she moved to the State University of New York in Plattsburgh in 1958. A Fulbright fellowship for study in Taiwan afforded her the chance to expand her research in the field, followed by postdoctoral classes at the University of Southern California and New York University. Although she liked Plattsburgh’s progressive curriculum, Lewis relocated to Los Angeles, so her children could experience a more multicultural population.

In 1968, Lewis became the education coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a position she hoped to use to increase exhibition opportunities for black artists. Repeated clashes with museum administrators over the hiring of more staff of African descent led Lewis to resign. She would go on to establish three independent art galleries and, in 1976, founded the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, where she served as senior curator until 1986. Soon after she left LACMA, Lewis began teaching at Scripps College in Claremont, California (1969–1984), and, in another first, became the college’s first tenured African American professor. When she and fellow artist-scholar Ruth Waddy sought to publish their landmark two-volume guide on African American artists, Black Artists on Art (1969 and 1971), Lewis co-founded Contemporary Crafts Gallery, the first African American–owned art publishing house. She also founded the noted academic journal, International Review of African American Art, in 1976. Her documentary interviews with prominent African American artists, such as Catlett and Richmond Barthé, were eventually published in the seminal text Art: African American (1978). During this same period, she made several short films celebrating the careers of African American artists. 

In recognition of her contribution to the arts and specifically to the field of African American art history, Samella Lewis received the UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts in 1995. She was also a distinguished scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles from 1996 to 1997. Her work can be found at national art museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hampton University Museum.