Harold O. Lewis taught at Howard University for nearly half a century, specializing in modern European history, but he is in many ways a first-hand expert on District of Columbia history as well.
Born 75 years ago in Garfield Heights, a then-rural Southeast community set on a series of ridges south of Anacostia, Lewis grew up with a front row seat to many of the century's dramatic and historic events in the nation's capital.
His recollections and observations on District history were taped, along with those of another distinguished city resident Dr. W. Montague Cobb, for the television documentary "Step by Step," that will be shown tonight at 9 on WETA-Channel 26.
He stood on the sidelines in 1925 when Ku Klux Klansmen paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Among them, Lewis said, was a man he later recognized as an Amherst janitor when he enrolled in the Massachusetts college as a scholarship student.
In 1963, when the Mall was "teeming with people from the Memorial to the Monument," for Martin Luther King's March on Washington, he recalled, "I heard that people planned to get out of town because they were afraid; I didn't see one scowl. It restores your faith in human nature."
"I do not think that the later generations had any monopoly on race consciousness," said Lewis.
His early lessons in race pride and civic consciousness came, he said, from his parents, William H. and Mary V. Lewis, both Washingtonians, who were community activists and founding members of the Garfield Heights Civic Association. His father entered government service in 1898 and attended Howard University Law School at night.
Lewis' mother, a schoolteacher here around the turn of the century, was honored in 1955 by the Garfield-Douglas Heights community as an "exemplary pioneer spirit" whose "continuing contributions made our community a better place to live."
As a student in the Dunbar High School Cadet Corps, Lewis witnessed the shooting of a fellow cadet by a white man who had driven in front of their marching column. When the cadets protested, the man shot and wounded one of them. Lewis said he testified against the man in court, but the man was acquitted.
His parents counseled " 'Don't let these experiences distort your attitude toward life,' " he said, and that sustained him over the years despite what he said were incidents of "brutality and indignity."
He began teaching at Howard in 1930 and found it a "sanctuary," where "we didn't feel discrimination the way poorer, less educated people did."
"Howard in those years had a tremendously accomplished faculty" including Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke and Sterling Brown, Lewis said. "Fauclty members did not remain aloof from the community, but took positions of leadership on social issues."
He recalled that in 1935 they organized a national conference critical of the New Deal, particularly its treatment of sharecroppers.
That same year faculty members protested the absence of the issue of lynching from the J. Edgar Hoover-sponsored International Conference on Crime. About 75 persons, including Howard professors and students along with NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, stood across the street from the 17th Street conference site, some wearing nooses around their necks.
Lewis has lectured on the Nazi concentration camps and written about the cooperative movement in Scandinavia, European political parties and the postwar German constitution.
Now retired, he continues his scholarly work, particularly of blacks in American history. He recently wrote a profile of 18th century Back-to-Africa advocate Paul Cuffe, a New Bedford whaling captain, for the recently published Dictionary of American Negro Biography.
Lewis has been married for 55 years to the former Katherine Cardozo. They have one son.