The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 185,273 black Americans with Lewis as their last name. That represented 35% of the total of 531,781 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Lewis in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Lewis Before The Civil War
The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.
In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. There were three categories: white, black, and mulatto. The third term is the language of the time, and I will use mixed in this article.
If you are researching your black Lewis ancestors in census archives, be sure to check the two non-white categories. Do not assume that the people recording the information were always correct.
1850 Federal Census
There were 1,630 people named Lewis who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 760 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 49,158 free citizens named Lewis that year. There would be one more census in 1860 before the Civil War.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. All African Americans were included.
Those who were omitted in 1850 and 1860 because they were enslaved were now recorded.
21,097 people named Lewis were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 3,275 as mixed.
There was a total of 95,306 people with the name.
Lewis In The 1900 And 1940 Census
The mixed category was dropped in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.
The 1900 census recorded 45,649 people with the last name Lewis as black within a total of 165,717 that year.
By the way, the mixed category returned in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. It was dropped again in 1930, but replaced with extra categories for colored and non-white in a way that seems confusing now.
This changed again in 1940 and we can simply focus on one black category.
The 1940 census recorded 64,184 people named Lewis as black within a total of 267,282.
Historic Black Figures With The Lewis Surname
Here are some notable African American people in history who bore Lewis as a last name.
Kwaku Walker Lewis
- Born: 1798
- From: Barre, Massachussetts
- Died: 1856
Kwaku Walker Lewis had a relatively privileged upbringing. His father was a barber who owned several properties in Boston.
The younger Lewis opened his own barbershop. He became a freemason by joining the African Lodge in Boston. The African Freemasonry had been established by Prince Hall in the late 18th century.
Lewis and other black freemasons like Thomas Dalton organized the Massachusetts General Colored Association in the late 1820s. The group published an appeal for emancipation in 1829. The author was David Walker (no relation).
His home in Lowell was a refuge for fugitive slaves during the 1840s and ‘50s. As a stop on the Underground Railroad, he and his son Enoch provided clothing to help disguise those fleeing further North.
William Henry Lewis
- Born: 1868
- From: Berkley, Virginia
- Died: 1949
William Henry Lewis played football while attending Harvard Law School in the early 1890s. He was the first black player to be selected as an All-American.
After his graduation, Harvard appointed Lewis as their college football coach. He held the position for eleven years. Lewis struck up a friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, another Harvard man.
Roosevelt was instrumental in the appointment of Lewis as Assistant Attorney in Boston in 1903. This made headlines as Lewis was the first African American in such a role.
He made more headlines when President Taft appointed him in 1910 as U.S. Assistant Attorney General. There was plenty of pushback to this historic event, but the Senate confirmed him in 1911.
Lewis was a strong advocate for more African Americans to study law to protect their communities.
Some other early black lawyers of prominence were:
- Bulk Colbert Franklin who acted for black businessmen after the Tusla Race Massacre
- George Vaughn, fought a landmark anti-eviction case in St Louis
Lewis In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Lewis surname from three different military services:
- Black civil war sailors
- Buffalo soldiers
- Tuskegee airmen
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for Lewis was for Henry Lewis from Baltimore, Maryland. He enlisted in July 1861 at Boston, Massachussetts when he was aged 22.
The record shows that Henry was assigned on October 1863 to the ship Rhode Island.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Mariner. His naval rank was Ordinary Seaman.
An ordinary seaman in the Navy is an apprentice who serves on the deck.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at Baltimore in February 1864. Charles was aged 21 and was from Baltimore, Maryland.
He was assigned to the ship Winona on April 1865.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Waiter. His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
One of the earliest military entries for Lewis was in April 1868. Peter Lewis was a Corporal in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in April 1868 at Fort Gibson and Fort Arbuckle.
One of the later entries was in February 1914. Cary Lewis was a Sergeant in the Ninth Cavalry.
If you are researching military ancestors, there is a free index of these records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. You have to create an account on either website, but you do not need to pay for the Buffalo Soldiers archive.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. The photograph above (from the Library of Congress) shows a class in session.
They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Joe Lewis graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in June 1943. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Joe was from Denver, Colorado.
Herbert Lewis came from South Bend, Indiana. He graduated in November 1945 as a fighter pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.