Arthur and Evelyn Lewis were no strangers to adversity. So it was fitting that despite last Tuesday’s downpour, a gathering of undeterred people made their way to the end of Brookville Drive to pay the couple tribute.
“The legacy you leave speaks for itself, and it will be what people come out for in the rain,” said the Lewis’ daughter, Jennifer Lewis-Hall.
As part of the tribute, Cherry Hill Township formally renamed the small park in the Point of Woods neighborhood The Arthur and Evelyn Lewis Memorial Park. The freshly unveiled sign recognizes the pair as “trailblazers, champions and advocates for education.”
Predeceased by his wife in 2010, 89-year-old Arthur passed away in August after battling vascular disease. That month, in the same kitchen where her mother and father helped dream up the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association, Lewis-Hall sat with Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn and talked about how the township could memorialize her parents. They settled on renaming the park in the Point of Woods neighborhood, where the couple lived for more than 40 years.
“He was part of this community, this neighborhood,” Cahn emphasized. “In this way, we will always be able to remember him.”
The Lewis family came to Cherry Hill from Chicago when Arthur’s employer, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), transferred him to Philadelphia. During his 24-year career with the agency, Arthur worked undercover, posing as a drug dealer for 12 years before becoming the DEA’s deputy regional director for Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.
In 1971, he was the first African American to be named the special agent in charge of the DEA’s mid-Atlantic region, and he continued to break barriers when he became the first African American interim director of the DEA under President Jimmy Carter.
Arthur helped elevate others with him by joining his fellow African American agents in a class-action employment discrimination lawsuit filed against the Justice Department in 1977. It alleged black agents were systemically passed over for promotions and raises. Arthur’s testimony as a high-ranking official carried significant weight, and a judge ultimately ruled in the agents’ favor.
Arthur’s impact was not just reserved for the national stage. He was co-founder of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and both he and Evelyn were active in the Cherry Hill community. Evelyn served on the zoning board, and Arthur became the first African American elected to the Cherry Hill Board of Education.
Together they were two of the founding members of the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association, which has since awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to Cherry Hill students.
Lewis-Hall said community engagement was always an integral part of both of her parents’ lives. Her maternal grandmother was the founder of the Anguilla Benevolence Society, which helped residents of the Caribbean island Anguilla come to the United States. So Evelyn was surrounded from her youth by a culture of giving.
“So, when you grow up in a family that emphasizes that paying it forward is important, then that’s the legacy you leave,” Lewis-Hall noted. “That’s the legacy my parents grew up with, lived by and that I hope we will forever be able to carry forward.”
Arthur and Evelyn were married for 57 years; besides their daughter, they had two sons, Hunter J. Lewis and Jeffrey M. Lewis. Jennifer Lewis-Hall moved back to Cherry Hill to serve as caregiver to her father. She’s still coming to terms with his passing, and in doing so, has given some thought to what her parents meant not only to her, but to those around them.
“As I think about what they were able to accomplish — growing up in the Great Depression and witnessing the struggle for civil rights — to be able to have friends of all backgrounds and colors without bitterness, to use that fuel of inequality as a way to bind and support others is really what this park is about,” Lewis-Hall said of the Point of Woods honor.
Lewis-Hall added while it may be nice to have money or fancy possessions, those are rarely the things people talk about after you’re gone. She said people associate your name with the life you lead and how you made them feel.
“I think we all hope to live a life that is meaningful and matters and does something to improve our community,” she said of her parents. “And they did that.”