Reginald F. Lewis was the nation’s richest African-American in the ’80’s and the first to build a billion-dollar company. This morning in his hometown of Baltimore, the late pioneering Black tycoon’s life will be celebrated at the museum that bears his name on the day of his birth.
Lewis was born December 7, 1942 in Baltimore, Md. Stating, in his words, that his neighborhood was “semi-tough,” Lewis excelled in academics and sports in high school. Entering Virginia State University in 1961 on an athletic scholarship, Lewis majored in economics. After losing his scholarship due to an injury and facing some academic struggles, Lewis eventually found his footing.
In his final year, Harvard Law School began introducing Black students to its legal studies department via a summer program. Lewis was selected for the program, and was invited by Harvard to attend its prestigious law school. To date, Lewis is the only individual to be admitted to the school before applying. The school renamed its international law center after him due to his achievements and his generous $3 million grant offering, the largest such for the school at the time.
With a focus on securities law, Lewis established the first African-American law firm on Wall Street, helping many minority businesses obtain much-needed startup capital.
In 1983, Lewis established the TLC Group, a venture capital firm known for corporate takeovers of struggling companies and then turning them around. Lewis’ biggest coup came in 1987 when he purchased the international division of Beatrice Foods. At $985 million, it was the largest leveraged buyout at the time.
Renaming it TLC Beatrice International, Lewis rapidly turned around the company as its chairman and CEO. In 1992, the company earned over $1.6 billion annually. Lewis worked between offices in New York and Paris.
Lewis was often portrayed as a man who didn’t acknowledge racial matters. In fact, he was quoted as saying that he didn’t involve himself in such discussions. However, the way white businessmen were treated versus those of color quietly motivated him according to some accounts.
Lewis used the overwhelming success he obtained as his way to combat the racist and divisive nature of American business. Lewis also remarked that his skin color wasn’t a factor in Europe. Instead, he was judged there on the merit of his hard work.
In 1993, Lewis died at the age of 50 after a long bout with brain cancer. His wife, attorney Loida Nicolas-Lewis, took over TLC Beatrice’s operations.
In 2005, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture opened in Baltimore.
Late last month, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings placed Lewis’ financial milestone in 1987 and honoring its 30th anniversary by entering in the United States Congressional Record
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