Excitement buzzed in the lecture hall at the opening of the 21st Annual Exhibition of the Rhode Island School of Design. Members of the RISD class of 1900 were awarded their diplomas, while other students received prizes. Among the award recipients was young Thomas R. Lewis (1880-1958), a student artist who earned a scholarship based on his abilities in the evening life drawing class. Addressing the lively crowd was Professor Poland of Brown University, and at the time President of RISD, who proclaimed, “The people of Providence and of Rhode Island are beginning to feel that we have made for ourselves a place that nothing else can fill, and that we are essential to the public wealth.” If anyone in the building manifested the words of Prof. Poland that night, it was Thomas R. Lewis, who later broke the status quo as a Black entrepreneur and made essential contributions to RI’s economy through jewelry making and philanthropy.
Born on April 5, 1880, in Providence, Lewis was raised in the pre-World War II caste system where Black men were largely limited to work in physically demanding fields. As a popular athlete in high school, Lewis could certainly find work as a waiter or bellhop. However, while employed as an errand-runner at Gorham Manufacturing Company, Lewis became interested in a career as a silversmith. A Black jeweler in the early 20th century had little hope of being hired, and Lewis’s family was not supportive. Lewis’s mother died during his childhood, and his father and sister thought his goal of becoming a jeweler was not viable. Eventually, Lewis was forced out of his home. He continued to practice his craft and attended evening classes at RISD while living in a small room with a friend.
Lewis graduated with a certificate from RISD in 1902. He worked as a laborer for at least another year at Gorham before finding a place with a small manufacturer where he produced, according to his employer, designs of “extraordinary quality.” After six years there, Lewis ventured into forming his own company. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Thomas R. Lewis Company employed an integrated workforce, with upward of 65 employees, and created designer goods that sold in luxury stores such as Saks and to the high-end cosmetics manufacturer Richard Hudnut. Lewis’s designs included lavish cigarette cases, powder compacts, and exquisite dog collars.
In 1925, a lacquer explosion in Lewis’s shop at 171 Eddy Street sparked a fire and led to damage throughout the building. Despite this, Lewis enjoyed continued success in the jewelry industry by producing great designs and giving back to his community. Most notably, the Lewis Company aided in the employment of men and women from Providence’s Black communities. Lewis knew many of his employees from their childhood, and taught them the skills they needed to work with diligence. A philanthropist, Lewis was involved in the YMCA and What Cheer Tennis Club where he sponsored social events and helped to put up tennis courts on Willett Avenue in East Providence.
At one point in his career, Thomas Lewis was reported to be one of the highest paid jewelry manufacturers in Providence. He was a respected member of the New England Manufacturing Jewelers and Silversmiths Association. While wider acclaim proved elusive, Lewis took pride in his work, his designs, and his community. In pursuing his dream, Lewis became a pioneer in the jewelry design and manufacturing industry. He died in 1958.