Reginald F. Lewis has been an omnipresent and enigmatic figure on the Baltimore landscape for decades since his death in 1993.
His name is emblazoned upon The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, a landmark at the corner of Pratt and President Sts., the gateway to glitzy Harbor East. Since 2005, when the museum opened its doors, people from around the state, the nation and the globe have visited and learned the stories of Maryland’s Black community. But, I didn’t know much about Lewis beyond the fact that he was the richest Black man in America in the 1980’s.
I learned a lot more about this great son of Baltimore during a recent event at the Lewis Museum Dec. 7. “The Conversation: Reginald F. Lewis, The $Billion Deal, The Lifestyle, The Man,” celebrated what would have been the 75th birthday of Lewis, who died at age 50 from brain cancer.
The conversation was led by my friend Charles Robinson, a veteran journalist and anchor at Maryland Public Television. On the panel were four men who were very close to Lewis including his brother, Jean Fugett, Jr., who helped Lewis found the TLC Group in 1983, the venture capital firm, which served as the platform for Lewis to purchase Beatrice International Foods for $985 million in 1987. I remember watching Fugett as a kid, when he was a standout tight end for the Washington Redskins. But, I learned Lewis was a star football player in his own right.
Also on the panel, Clarence “Tiger” Davis, the former Baltimore City Delegate, who played football with Lewis at Dunbar High School. Davis, a force in East Baltimore politics for decades, spoke glowingly about Lewis as a charismatic leader, even as a high school football star.
Lin Hart, another childhood friend of Lewis, was also a part of the conversation. He wrote the book, “Reginald F. Lewis Before TLC Beatrice: The Young Man Before the Billion-Dollar Empire.” Hart, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, played football with Lewis at Virginia State College, the Historically Black College where Lewis got his undergraduate degree in political science in 1965, before moving on to Harvard Law School.
Harvard Law is where Lewis met William “Bill” Slattery, who was also part of the conversation celebrating Lewis’ life. I knew Lewis went to Harvard. But, what I discovered is Lewis was the only person to be accepted at Harvard Law without applying. He was recruited to attend Harvard when he was a student at Virginia State and never formally applied at Harvard, which seems implausible, but clearly not for Lewis.
Beyond the insights of these four men, the two people who knew Lewis best were also in attendance at the event celebrating Lewis at the museum bearing his name; his widow Loida Nicolas Lewis and his mother Carolyn Fugett (who is 92 and still going strong).
“He established the first Black law firm on Wall Street; he bought the McCall Pattern company on a leveraged buyout for $22 million, turned it around, and later sold it at a 90-1 return; and he sealed the $985 million deal that launched the first African-American billion dollar enterprise,” said Nicolas Lewis in a statement.
I knew Lewis was the first Black person to close a billion dollar deal and build a billion dollar company. But, I didn’t know that the Beatrice deal was the largest leveraged buyout of overseas assets by an American Company at the time, period.
Lewis wrote the book, “Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?” It is a memoir of a Black man, with his roots in Black Baltimore, who emerged from our community to forge billion dollar Wall Street Deals and operated as a financial superstar, typically in rooms with nobody else that looked like him.
Ultimately, Lewis’ story, embodied by his signature statement, “Keep going, no matter what,” is yet another volume in the fabled history of Baltimore’s Black vanguard.
Sean Yoes is the Baltimore editor of the AFRO and host and executive producer of the AFRO First Edition video podcast, which airs Monday and Friday on the ARO’s Facebook page.