The son of former slaves, William Lewis became one of the game’s greatest centers of during the sport’s formative years. But his greatest achievements came off the field in coaching, writing, politics, law and civil rights.
Born in Virginia, he enrolled in what is now known as Virginia State University. In 1888, he entered Amherst College where he learned to play football. He played on the varsity for three seasons and was voted captain his senior year. Although records from the time are incomplete, Lewis is most likely the first African-American to participate in intercollegiate football.
Lewis then entered Harvard Law School. Eligibility rules at the time permitted him to continue to play football. Caspar Whitney named Lewis to his All-America teams of 1892 and 1893 making Lewis the first African-American All-America selection. Noted expert Walter Camp named Lewis to his All-Time All-America team in 1900.
After graduation, he served as a line coach at Harvard for 12 seasons and wrote a book on the sport. A copy of his “A Primer of College Football” is in the archive of the College Football Hall of Fame. During the crisis season of 1905 and the subsequent rule changes for 1906, many credit Lewis as the originator of the neutral zone.
While coaching at Harvard, he served as a member of the Cambridge City Council and the Massachusetts Legislature. President Theodore Roosevelt became acquainted with Lewis through politics and the fact that his son played freshman football at Harvard. TR appointed Lewis as an Assistant United States Attorney for Boston. In 1910, he was confirmed by the Senate as a United Sates Assistant Attorney General. At that time, this made Lewis the highest ranking African-American governmental official in history.
In 1913, he entered private practice. Going back to his collegiate days when he won prizes for public speaking, Lewis was a skilled and convincing courthouse orator. He argued cases before the US Supreme Court and one of his clients was the infamous con artist Charles Ponzi. He also made many addresses on civil rights and won a suit against a barber who refused to cut the hair of African-Americans. He died at the age of 80 while still an active lawyer.