Claude Lewis, who became the first Black man to write a regular newspaper column in Philadelphia and was a founding member of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) and the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), died on Thursday, March 16, 2017 at Virtua Voorhees Hospital in Voorhees, N.J. He was 82.
Born and raised in Harlem, N.Y., Lewis had been battling diabetes for years. The disease had claimed his vision about a decade ago.
In 1965, Lewis was lured from NBC to the Evening Bulletin. He joined the city staff as a general assignment reporter. In 1968, the managing editor, George R. Packard, wanted Lewis to write a column three times a week.
The move made Lewis an icon, especially in the African-American community.
Lewis interviewed some of the biggest leaders during the civil rights era. With a style that was forceful yet objective, he had no problem asking tough questions. He confronted a turbulent time with dignity and class.
When the Bulletin closed in 1982, Lewis helped create the National Leader, a weekly publication based in Philadelphia aimed at Black readers. Lewis was editor of the publication.
In 1985, Lewis joined The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board and wrote a column. He retired in 2009.
Lewis, along with fellow Philadelphia journalists Chuck Stone and Acel Moore, were known as “The Original Three.” The trio laid the groundwork for and later founded the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ) in 1973. Lewis and many of PABJ’s early members contributed to the formation of NABJ in 1975 in Washington, D.C.
“Founder Claude Lewis was a gentle giant and kind soul whose passion for equality and equal opportunity can be seen in his columns and life’s work. He had a personal impact on the trajectory of many NABJ members, myself included, showing us all the way,” said NABJ President Sarah Glover. “Claude lives on in all of us. I thank him for instilling in me, and my peers, a deep level of tenacity and commitment to the cause.”
Lewis had an extensive career in broadcasting, writing and producing various TV specials and documentaries with NBC and Westinghouse Broadcasting.
NABJ Founder Joe Davidson worked with Lewis at The National Leader and first met him when both worked at The Philadelphia Bulletin.
“Claude was an important force in journalism in the 1970s. He meant a lot to me personally and to a lot of Black journalists professionally,” Davidson said. “He lured me away from The Inquirer to work as managing editor at The Leader. It was an opportunity to serve the Black community with high quality journalism. I was really proud of the work we did together on that newspaper.”
Lewis is remembered for his work.
“Claude was a journalist miles ahead of his time, and he achieved recognition long before many recognized him,” said NABJ Founder Paul Brock.
Former NABJ President Vanessa Williams, a national reporter with The Washington Post, remembers Lewis fondly.
“I remember Claude as a friendly and encouraging colleague when we worked together at The Philadelphia Inquirer,” she said. “His door was always open and he didn’t hesitate to share his contacts, expertise and advice to young journalists. He and Acel were like these twin towers of Black journalism excellence in Philly. We should honor them by continuing their tradition of being fierce advocates for the truth, especially in this current political climate.
“He was a hero to many young African-American professionals who welcomed his guidance and admired his bravery in navigating his way through a prestigious and amazing journalism career,” Williams said. “He was a gentle giant and kind soul whose passion for equality and equal opportunity can be seen in his columns and life’s work. He had a personal impact on the trajectory of many black journalists, myself included, showing us all the way.”
He met wife Beverly McKelvey in high school. The two married in October 1953.
Lewis had wanted to be a poet, but when he ran the idea by Langston Hughes, the famed poet pointed him toward journalism. Hughes told Lewis to “sow the seeds of accomplishment,” Binzen wrote, and Lewis made that his guiding principle.
Linda Wright Avery Moore, a journalist and communications specialist, recalled Lewis’ kindness to her when, as a WCAU-TV reporter, she covered the Bulletin’s closing on Jan. 29, 1982.
“It was a sad and awkward time,” she recalled. “He was so engaging and encouraging to me as a reporter.”
Later, Moore said, Lewis served as a low-key, supportive mentor.
“I talked to him when I was working on projects at the station to get his insight,” she said. “He was quiet and unassuming — real different from now, when everybody has to be a brand for success. He was a pioneer.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by: four children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for a later date.