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Samella S. Lewis papers

Identifier: Manuscript Collection No. 1132

Scope and Content Note

The collection consists of the papers of Samella S. Lewis from 1930-2010 and includes correspondence and personal papers, artwork, subject files, photographs, writings, printed material, and audiovisual material. Correspondence is both professional and personal in nature and includes letters from her mentor and fellow artist Elizabeth Catlett. Personal papers include administrative papers from the The International Review of African American Art (IRAAA), the Museum of African American Art, Scripps College, and the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture; awards; and scrapbooks. Artwork includes photographs of paintings and sculptures by Lewis, as well as a sketchbook of original drawings.

Subject files primarily relate to art, culture and history, as well as artists such as John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence and Betye Saar. Photographs include portraits and snapshots of Lewis, as well as other photographs relating to artists and art throughout the African diaspora. Slides relating to African American artists and international art make up the bulk of the photographs. Writings consist of drafts and manuscripts for several of Lewis' books, articles and interviews. The bulk of printed material consists of items pertaining to Lewis and primarily document her exhibitions and speaking events. Audiovisual material consists of audio recordings of international cultural events and festivals as well as interviews by Lewis with other artists.


  • 1930-2010

Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Restrictions on Access

Special restrictions apply: Researchers must contact the Rose Library in advance for access to audiovisual material in this collection.

Series 4: Access to processed born digital materials is only available in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (the Rose Library). Use of the original digital media is restricted.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

All requests subject to limitations noted in departmental policies on reproduction.

Biographical Note

Samella Sanders Lewis, African American artist, author, curator, and educator, was born February 27, 1923, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The daughter of Samuel Sanders and Rachel Sanders, Samella was an honor student at McDonogh Senior High School. She received a Delta Sigma Theta scholarship, which she used to attend Dillard University in New Orleans for two years. She won an art scholarship from the Hampton Institute in 1943 and moved to the Virginia-based school where she completed her Bachelor of Science in art in 1945. Among her contemporary classmates was John Biggers, whose papers Emory also holds.

Lewis began her professorial career as an instructor in the Hampton Institute art department the year after her graduation. In 1947 she began work on her M.A. in art at Ohio State University, receiving her degree in 1948. That same year she married Paul G. Lewis and moved to Los Angeles, where she taught at Cal State Long Beach while finishing her doctoral dissertation. Lewis became the first African American woman to earn a PhD in art history in 1951 from Ohio State.

In 1953 Lewis took a position at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, where she developed the art department and became increasingly involved in the local NAACP chapter. Lewis took a position at the State University of New York--Plattsburgh, where she taught art history and humanities from 1958-1968 and used post-doctoral fellowships to expand her expertise to encompass Asian art in addition to African art and art of the African diaspora.

In 1968 Lewis moved with her family back to Los Angeles, where she worked briefly as the education coordinator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She accepted an appointment as Professor of Art History at Scripps College in the Claremont College system in 1969, where she remained until her retirement from academia in 1984.

Lewis is known primarily as a painter but was also a printmaker working with lithographs and linocuts. In 1970 she founded the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Los Angeles and then, six years later, founded the Museum of African American Art while also working there as chief curator.

Lewis, a distinguished author of art history books, published her first book, Black Artists on Art, in 1969. She has written books, articles, lectures, and essays on art and artists of the African diaspora, including textbooks Art: African American (1978) and African American Art and Artists(2003), the children's non-fiction book African American Art for Young People (1991), and the artist biographies The Art of Elizabeth Catlett (1984) and Barthé: His Life in Art (2009). She also founded and edited The International Review of African American Art, and founded Hancraft Studios, which produced books, prints and greeting cards.

Following her retirement from academia, Lewis curated exhibitions for museums and galleries in the United States and abroad, including exhibitions dedicated to artists such as Richmond Barthé, Richard Hunt, Palmer C. Hayden, and Jacob Lawrence. She has also received awards and honors from colleges and universities, including Hampton University, University of Cincinnati, and Spelman College. She was awarded the 1993 Charles White Lifetime Achievement Award and the 1995 UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts, and served as a distinguished scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1997.


54.25 linear feet (80 boxes); 5 oversized papers boxe, 1 oversized papers folder (OP); 2 bound volumes (BV); AV Masters: 3.5 linear feet (4 boxes); AV Masters: 5.625 linear feet (6 boxes),; 228 MB born digital material (27 files)


Papers of Samella S. Lewis, an African American artist and educator, including artwork, writings, correspondence, printed material, subject files, photographs, and audiovisual and born digital material.

Arrangement Note

Organized into 7 series: (1) Correspondence and personal papers, (2) Artwork, (3) Subject files, (4) Photographs, (5) Writings, (6) Printed material, and (7) Audiovisual material.


Purchase, 2010, with subsequent additions.


Processed by Amber L. Moore, Tricia Hersey, and Jason Gutierrez, 2014.

Born digital materials processed, arranged, and described by Brenna Edwards, 2020. Born digital materials include files taken from one optical disc. For information as to how these materials were processed, see the processing note in the description of series 4, Photographs.

This finding aid may include language that is offensive or harmful. Please refer to the Rose Library's harmful language statement for more information about why such language may appear and ongoing efforts to remediate racist, ableist, sexist, homophobic, euphemistic and other oppressive language. If you are concerned about language used in this finding aid, please contact us at

Samella S. Lewis papers, 1930-2010
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University
June 29, 2010
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • April 24, 2014: Finding aid revised
  • July 29, 2015: Finding aid revised to include enhanced metadata tagging.

Repository Details

Part of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library Repository

540 Asbury Circle
Atlanta Georgia 30322 United States