Remembering Earl M. Lewis: Educator, Activist, Visionary

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Editor's note: A memorial service for Earl M. Lewis will be held Saturday, 10 a.m., in Parker Chapel on the Trinity University campus.  The Rev. Raymond Judd, university chaplain emeritus, will officiate. Following the service, a reception will be held in the Coates University Center Skyline Room. To read the Trinity's In Memoriam: Earl M. Lewis, click here.  

Char Miller“Universities have to be a constructive force in helping cities deal with their problems,” asserted Earl M. Lewis when asked why he moved to San Antonio in 1968 to become the founding director of Trinity University’s Urban Studies Program. He made good on that promise, too, so much so that with his death on October 13, San Antonio lost one of its most important activists and Trinity University lost one of its legendary professors.

A Mississippi native, Earl grew up in the Jim Crow South. He studied at Tougaloo College, one of the region’s small, historically black colleges, and received advanced degrees from the University of Chicago. Out of personal conviction and stymied by academic segregation, Earl taught for many years at another historically black institution, Prairie View A & M, before moving to San Antonio in 1968, where he helped integrate Trinity's faculty. Through the Urban Studies program he also radically diversified the once-largely white institution, pushing the campus into a brave new world. His certitude helped it get over its uncertainty.

Earl Lewis courtesy Lewis Family

Earl M. Lewis, activist and legendary Trinity University professor. Courtesy of the Lewis family.

He did the same for fast-growing San Antonio, then struggling to respond to white flight to the suburbs, declining inner-city services, and a staggering level of educational inequity. Tapped to serve on countless boards and commissions, he was among those who negotiated through the city’s charter-revision committee for the all-important shift away from at-large elections to the current council-district process; this generated a more democratic and inclusive politics. Earl Lewis practiced what he preached.

He encouraged the rest of us to do so, too. That’s what made him such a seminal figure for his students and colleagues alike. I happily count myself in their number. Although I don't remember our first meeting, I have a sharp memory of what was our most important. Early in 1983, Earl walked into my office unannounced, a sheaf of papers in his hands. As he scrolled and unscrolled them, tilted his head and let a small smile play across his face, he wondered if I would do him a favor.

A very junior member of the faculty, confronted with full professors in my home department trying to show me the door, I could not imagine what I could offer Earl, a man who made networking an art form.

Through his contacts he had heard of my situation, alluded to it obliquely, but framed his request not as a lifeline (though it would prove to be one) rather as a help to him: would I consider teaching a class in urban history for a new undergraduate major in Urban Studies?

At that time the program was at the graduate level only, and it had been training some of the brightest minds for more than a decade. As its graduates fanned out across Texas, or headed west or east, they took up positions as city planners and managers in nearly every major city in the nation's fastest-growing region stretching from San Diego to Atlanta.

Their individual lives were forever altered. "Professionally, I couldn't tell begin to tell you how many doors the program opened for me," one of them told me. "If it weren't for Earl Lewis and Trinity University, I could not have broken that ground. It would have been virtually impossible."

They broke ground collectively, too. Taught to think critically about power dynamics and racial and ethnic discrimination that plagued urban governance and developmental schemes, they were educated as well about the critical need for equal access to public transportation, affordable housing, and clean water. As they became advocates for inclusive management and transparent decision-making, these women and men helped build more responsive county commissions, city halls, and town councils, or pursued these same ends at the state and federal levels.

Earl M. Lewis and Hazelyn Lewis, attending the inaugural Earl M. Lewis Symposium on Urban Affairs, April 2004, Trinity Univeristy; photo courtesy of Trinity University

No community felt their force more fully than San Antonio. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the precise moment when Latino organizers started to challenge the closed-door, Anglo-dominated politics of the Alamo City, a steady stream of Trinity Urban Studies grads – Drew Cameron, Rolando Bono, Shirl Thomas, Flo Pena, Travis Bishop, and Mario Trevino (many of whom hailed from barrios and neighborhoods rising up against decades of neglect, disdain, and disenfranchisement) – were entering local government.

From the inside, they opened up what had been a buttoned-down old-boys' club. In conjunction with successful legal challenges that activists leveled against the city council's system of at-large elections, a process that had insured an almost all-white political body, these internal change agents made public hearings public.

They represented what Earl Lewis and his colleagues had demanded of them: they must work for and be accountable to all residents, always. Like their mentor, they believed in the efficacy of government to make cities more habitable and just.

Lewis Legacy Award for Distinguished Service in Urban Affairs: Walter Huntley and Jelynne Burley present prize to Alex Briseno, ’71, ‘73

Lewis Legacy Award for Distinguished Service in Urban Affairs: Walter Huntley and Jelynne Burley present prize to Alex Briseno, ’71, ‘73. Photo courtesy of Trinity University.

In time, so many of them rose through the ranks, becoming heads of departments and city managers, notably Alex Briseno, Frances Gonzalez, Jelynne Burley, and current Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh, that they spoke of themselves affectionately as the "Trinity Mafia," yet another tribute to Earl's enduring effect.

Sensing that undergraduates were an untapped pool of recruits, and in response to curricular changes then underway at the university, Earl began to devise a new major. That's when he showed up at my door; the ensuing conversation fundamentally altered what and how I taught, as well as the subject of my research and writing.

Although my graduate work was in intellectual and cultural history, I had long been riveted by the surging nature of urban life. Having grown up just outside New York City, and later having lived in greater Los Angeles while an undergraduate at Pitzer College, it was hard to miss the sheer clout of urban economies and city politics: as in Rome so in the United States -- all roads led to the metropolitan core.

Earl gave me an opportunity to find out what that meant in and across time. The course that I started teaching for his program was called "The City in History", a studied homage to Lewis Mumford's magnificent book by the same name. Its narrative arc moved from the Tower of Babel to the City of Angels, from Genesis to Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: Architecture of Four Ecologies. In between these bookends, we probed how preindustrial cities functioned and subsequently were blown apart by the industrial revolution and its accompanying tectonic shift in class, wealth, and status. This new social structure itself would be tested in the tumult of post-industrialization.

Painting of Earl Lewis.

Painting of Earl M. Lewis. Image courtesy of Trinity University.

These readings had an unintended impact -- they propelled me out of the library and into the community. Through conversations and collaborations with Earl’s colleagues in the Urban Studies program, especially with the late Cathy Powell and Heywood Sanders (now at UTSA), I focused on the place where we lived, trying to address the historical context for and present-day manifestations of San Antonio's social tensions, environmental injustices, and economic disparities.

Those academic pursuits also gave birth to a greater civic engagement. I served on a number of the city's advisory committees and penned an increasing number of commentaries for local newspapers about the strains that were resulting from the San Antonio's booming development and the glaring discrepancies between those who benefited from this growth and those who did not. Whatever readers may have thought of these musings, I was (and still am) hooked by the chance to think out loud about urban environments and the political structures and natural systems in which they operate.

Earl Lewis would never have wanted credit for my enduring fascinations. Yet I am deeply aware that had he not shown up in my office when he did, had he not asked me to help him, I would not have found myself.

Char Miller was on the faculty at Trinity University from 1981-2009, and served as chair of the History Department and director of the Urban Studies program; currently, he is director of the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College, Claremont CA. Miller is author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas, editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio, and co-editor of Urban Texas: Politics and Development. Trinity University Press will publish his book, On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, in Spring 2013. An earlier version of this article was published by KCET.org (Los Angeles), and appears here with its permission. 

3 thoughts on “Remembering Earl M. Lewis: Educator, Activist, Visionary

  1. I didn’t have a lot of contact with Earl Lewis but I admired him from afar. Like Horton Foot and Jacques Barzun he was a true gentleman in the old-world sense, urbane, cosmopolitan, erudite. May his tribe increase.

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