By Tamara Shiloh
In 1965, a select group of Black students participated in a summer school program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and held at Harvard Law School. Each student lobbied for acceptance in the program, which introduced them to legal studies. One student’s confidence and leadership skills made him stand out: Reginald F. Lewis (1942–1993).
Lewis made such an impression that Harvard Law welcomed him as a student that fall. This acceptance made him the only person in the law school’s 148-year history to be admitted before applying.
In 1968, Lewis began his career with the New York City firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, where he practiced corporate law. He served as counsel to the New York–based Commission for Racial Justice and represented The Wilmington 10, a group of civil rights activists who had been unjustly convicted of an arson fire in 1971. He successfully forced North Carolina to pay interest on the Wilmington 10 bond. In 1970, after networking with colleagues, he opened Wall Street’s first African American law firm.
By 1983, Lewis’ dream was to “do the deals himself,” thereby establishing the venture capital firm TLC Group, LP. The firm purchased the failing McCall Pattern Company for a reported $22.5 million. After successfully reviving McCall, Lewis sold it for $90 million. He later outbid Citicorp and purchased TLC Beatrice International for $985 million. It was the largest offshore buyout in American history at the time.
Looking back, in 1960, Lewis told a friend, “I know that what I’d like is to be the richest Black man in America.” He was on his way. TLC became the first Black-owned company to pass the billion-dollar mark with its annual sales of $1.8 billion.
Lewis had strong influences in his life from childhood. Growing up in East Baltimore, his parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts always encouraged him to “be the best that you can be.”
Young Reginald’s grandmother instilled in him the importance of saving, “even cutting and peeling strips from the bottom of a tin can and nailing it to the floor of a closet to protect his savings,” according to his website.
He set up a delivery route at age 10, selling the Afro American newspaper. What began with 10 customers grew to more than 100 over two years. Even then young Reginald had the business savvy to sell his route at a profit.
About Lewis, former-president Barack Obama commented: “[He] had the work ethic, the skills, and the know-how. Beyond that, he had the temperament, the self-assurance, and the confidence that he belonged there. Being the first of anything requires a certain mindset. Reginald Lewis had it.”
Lewis’ life was cut short by his untimely death after a short illness in January 1993. He was 50 years old.
Learn more about young Reginald Lewis and the challenges he overcame as he transformed himself from ordinary to extraordinary in Lin Hart’s “Reginald F. Lewis Before TLC Beatrice: The Young Man Before the Billion-Dollar Empire.”