Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Grace T. Lewis & How She Grew

Grace T. Lewis's Mt. Vernon, circa 1910

In 1915, Miss Lewis started as a clerk in the high school business office; within six years, she became Dean of Girls. Her voice may have been thunderous or eerily quiet, but definitely one or the other considering the power she wielded. Plus, she had the ear of the assistant superintendent with whom she lived in what used to be known as a Boston Marriage.

That was a polite term for a relationship between two single women, usually intimate friends, who lived together. Often their careers made them financially independent, which was the case with Grace Theodora Lewis and Catharine Inglis Rhodes.

Miss Lewis and Miss Rhodes were Methodists who did not drink or dance. But the two women loved the Metropolitan Opera, which they attended in drooping gowns with lace handkerchiefs twirled around their little fingers.

Ah yes, ancient perfume wafting across the porch as they stepped through the door of 223 South Second Avenue, a rambling Victorian house that Lewis inherited from her father. She called it “223.”  

The only child of a banker who served two years as the mayor of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and his second wife, whose family owned a department store on the city’s “avenue,” Grace (dare I call her that?) must have been prim and proper from the moment she set eyes on the world. 

She always made it clear that her family descended from the explorer Meriwether Lewis. Evidently he was a melancholy man, but Grace didn’t inherit that gene.

Born in 1892 in Mt. Vernon Hospital, Grace attended the public schools and graduated from Goucher College, a Methodist women’s college in Baltimore, in 1913. She returned to her hometown, attended secretarial school, and found work locally.

But she wanted to go into the field of education. In 1921 she earned a Master’s degree from Teachers College of Columbia University. Then, amid slight controversy, Lewis promptly was appointed to the newly created position of Dean of Girls at the high school.

Grace Lewis’s companion, Miss Rhodes, followed a similar trajectory. Born in Aurora, Illinois, in 1893; Vassar College, 1915; Teachers College, 1923. A Mt. Vernon High School math teacher, she became assistant superintendent in 1940 but previously ran things behind the scenes for many years.

It goes without saying that Lewis and Rhodes had been fierce supporters of woman suffrage.

I have the feeling, though, that Catharine Rhodes got stuck in time, especially after she retired in 1962. Several years later, she responded to a questionnaire from her alma mater:

              What do you like most about today’s world?
              All the people who are doing their best to improve conditions lawfully and quietly.

What do you hate most about it?
Riots and fighting, cheap conduct and dirty dressing. Lack of publicity for all the good things being done.

It’s hard to blame Miss Rhodes for feeling chilled.

Some people endure relatively little social upheaval during the course of their lives. Others’ lifetimes fall along different lines.  

Another way to put it might be: in the space of her 92 years, the national protocol shifted from going to church and dressing for dinner on Sundays, to not dressing for church or Sunday dinner, and possibly not attending church or dinner at all.

If one feels besieged by change, every adjustment is hard. 

So on to Miss Lewis.

From her perch at Mt. Vernon High School, built high above the street with a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt – inexplicably reclining – on a plaza below, Grace T. Lewis saw a student population very much in flux.

In the early 1920s, the city government continued to be controlled by Mt. Vernon’s historically Protestant establishment, whose children attended the public schools.

Now, however, the schools also were charged with educating growing numbers of black children whose parents had fled the South after the First World War, second-generation Jews, and the sons and daughters of Italian immigrants whose hard labor could be seen in the high stone walls of the railroad cut that separated Mt. Vernon’s north and south sides racially, ethnically, and socio-economically.

In fact, Grace Lewis’s high school was one of two citywide. Its college prep curriculum contrasted with that of Edison Technical High School, whose vocational program made it the right place, in the opinion of counselors, for most of the students who faced disadvantages and discrimination.

That was a scheme with endless ramifications; it haunts the city today. 

Excerpt from a 1959 letter from Grace T. Lewis to my father,
then a Ford Foundation official, asking for consideration of a grant
to her alma mater, Goucher College

But the point here is that, as a product of her time, there would have been no expectation of Lewis to recognize the need to extend educational opportunity to students from all corners of the city’s diverse population. 

Yet she devoted herself to the pursuit of higher education for many Mt. Vernon students no matter who they were.

In 1922 Lewis established a Students’ College Fund to help “the son of foreigners, who is acting father for a large family of younger brothers and sisters . . . who has to work during his entire high school life to help support his family,” as she described in an article for The School Review.

“The colored girl, whose work has been faithfully and creditably done in adverse surroundings, should be encouraged to carry out her longing to prepare herself for teaching,” Lewis wrote.

Thousands of dollars were raised. Between 1922 and 1962, the fund inspired hundreds of Mt. Vernon’s working-class students to finish high school and enabled them to attend college.

Incidentally, the Grace T. Lewis Scholarships for Women in the Sciences are still awarded at Goucher College. Her bequests also included Meharry Medical College in Nashville, the nation’s second oldest medical school for African-Americans, and other historically black colleges.

Miss Lewis surely registered tone deaf about certain social inequities. However, on an individual basis she righted many wrongs in her beloved city.

She was, admirably, all about education.

See posts November 25 + December 21, 2015


  1. So illuminating. I rarely think about my grandmother's time nor of Mt Vernon. You have a great way of bringing it all back to life. So glad we had people like Miss Rhodes and Miss Lewis to have paved the way.

  2. Love this entry for the same reasons Sandra does! I will also note that "Boston Marriage" was often considered code for lesbian relationships. Although to whom it accurately applied is rather lost to history in most cases.


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