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The legacy of Robert Stevenson Lewis Jr.

  • Written by Dr. Sybill C. Mitchell
The legacy of Robert Stevenson Lewis Jr.

When Robert Stevenson Lewis Sr. first opened his funeral home at the corner of Beale and Fourth Streets in downtown Memphis, Robert Jr. was only five years old. The year was 1914. From the very beginning, Mr. Lewis Sr., affectionately called “The Old Man,” had little Robert and younger brother, Clarence, in mind: R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home.

Ruth Mason Lewis (center), who was married to R.S. Lewis Jr. for 64 years, and other family members at his homegoing on Monday (Nov. 28) at Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ at 229 Danny Thomas Blvd. (Photos by Tyrone P. Easley)
The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles (left) and the Rev. James L. Netters saluted Mr. Lewis, who they said came to their aid when they were jailed for acts of civil disobedience.

R.S. Lewis Jr. died last week (Nov. 21), taking with him a wealth of family history, but leaving behind “a great legacy.” On Monday Nov. 28, a varied mix from the well known to the little known said farewell to the man affectionately known by family and friends as “Brother.”

Groomed for business ownership

Mr. Lewis and his brother, Clarence, worked with their father in the mortuary. Management was seamlessly passed to them. The eldest, Mr. Lewis stepped into the director’s post once his father retired. Mr. Lewis Sr. passed in the mid-70’s.

The business prospered and thrived under the direction of Mr. Lewis Jr. In 1992, Clarence Lewis died after a brief illness. Mr. Lewis honored his brother by establishing the Clarence E. Lewis Scholarship Award for a senior student who shows promise.

As a prominent business owner in the city, Mr. Lewis committed his efforts to improving the quality of life for African Americans. He joined the fight to establish the T.O. Fuller State Park, a state park named in honor of Dr. Thomas O. Fuller, an African-American community activist.

Mr. Lewis was a key advocate for the city’s hiring of the first African-American firefighters in 1955. Gov. Frank Clement appointed him to the Alcohol Beverage Commission in the city, making him the first African American to serve in that capacity. He also was one of the first kings of the Cotton Makers Jubilee, a parade-accented event that saluted the “previously uncelebrated” contribution that African Americans made to the Mid-South cotton industry.

Robert Stevenson Lewis Jr.

Mr. Lewis was most proud of the family’s connection to the historic Memphis Red Sox, a team in the Negro Baseball League. The team was first established and owned by A.P. Martin in 1919. By 1922, the team had been bought by Mr. Lewis Sr., who financed the construction of Martin Stadium, also sometimes called “Lewis Park.”) It was located on Crump Blvd. and Thomas Street.

“I can remember going to Martin Stadium to see the baseball games,” said Jimmie J. Fields of Memphis. “The Negro League was big back in those days. There were stars on every team, and those games provided good entertainment for blacks.”

Opposing team members were lodged at the funeral home because Memphis hotels were segregated. The only hotel for African Americans at that time was the Blackwell Hotel, located at Third Street and Vance Avenue. Martin Stadium was sold after the team disbanded in 1960. It was razed by the city in 1961.

Senior class president at Booker T. Washington High School, Mr. Lewis obtained his undergraduate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Later, he graduated from Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, Ill., before succeeding his father at R.S. Lewis and Sons.

After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Mr. Lewis took on the task of making the civil rights icon’s body presentable for public viewing. He was the co-funeral director at Dr. King’s service in Atlanta.

Mr. Lewis, a lifelong member of Centenary United Methodist Church, was married for 64 years to Ruth Mason Lewis, whose father, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, founded the Church of God in Christ. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the Sigma Pi Phi (Boulé) fraternity.

In addition to Mrs. Lewis, among those he left to remember his legacy are his two children, Robert S. Lewis III of Los Angeles, and Dr. Sharon Lewis Rouse and her husband, Paul Rouse, of Atlanta; his sister, Elise “Teda” Woods of Los Angeles; his nephew, Willard L. Woods of Chicago; his granddaughter, Paula Rouse; and his “adoptive sons,” Richard Flowers and Andre Jones.

Jones and Flowers are co-business managers of Lewis and Sons.

“This is still a family-owned and operated business, and we are proud to carry on the great tradition of quality service and caring,” said Jones. “He will be truly missed.”

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