By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
November 15, 1979 Dr. William Arthur Lewis, a professor at Princeton University, is awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his publications about the economic problems faced by underdeveloped nations. Lewis’s winning of a Nobel Prize in Economics made him the first person of African descent to win a Nobel in a category other than Peace. Lewis was born in St. Lucia and was the first person of African descent to teach in a British University or at Princeton University.
Excerpt from “African American History Day by Day: A Reference Guide to Events” published 2012 by Karen Juanita Carrillo
William Arthur Lewis was born in St. Lucia on January 23, 1915. His parents George Ferdinand Lewis and Ida Louisa Lewis were both school teachers who had immigrated to St Lucia from Antigua 12 years before their son was born. Lewis was the fourth of the couple’s five sons and describes his mother’s influence on his life after his father died when he was only seven years old:
“My father died when I was seven, leaving a widow and five sons, ranging in age from five to 17. My mother was the most highly-disciplined and hardest working person I have ever known, and this, combined with her love and gentleness, enabled her to make a success of each of her children.”
Lewis was an exceptional child and gifted student who completed his secondary education at 14 years old. In his biography which he submitted when he received the Nobel Prize in 1979 he wrote: “I left school at 14, having completed the curriculum, and went to work as a clerk in the civil service. My next step would be to sit the examination for a St. Lucia government scholarship to a British university, but I would be too young for this until 1932. This job was not wasted on me since it taught me to write, to type, to file and to be orderly. But this was at the expense of not reading enough history and literature, for which these years of one’s life are the most appropriate.”
Lewis did sit the examination in 1932 and won the scholarship to attend a British university. He described his reason for eventually becoming an economist as a result of the White supremacist culture of colonial Britain and its treatment of the people who were colonized: “In 1932 I sat the examination and won the scholarship. At this point I did not know what to do with my life. The British government imposed a colour bar in its colonies, so young Blacks went in only for law or medicine where they could make a living without government support.
“I did not want to be a lawyer or a doctor. I wanted to be an engineer, but this seemed pointless since neither the government nor the White firms would employ a Black engineer. So I went to the London School of Economics to do the Bachelor of Commerce degree which offered accounting, business management, commercial law and a little economics and statistics.”
He excelled in the subject (economics) and when he graduated in 1937 with first class honours the London School of Economics gave him a scholarship to pursue a doctorate (Ph.D.) in Industrial Economics. His work was so noteworthy that in 1938 Lewis was given a one-year teaching appointment which, according to him, “was sensational for British universities. This was converted into the usual four-year contract for an Assistant Lecturer in 1939.”
In 1948 when he was 33 years old he was made a full professor at the University of Manchester. In his 2005 book, “W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics”, White American history professor Robert L. Tignor writes: “Lewis was an immediate success in his studies at the London School of Economics. In 1935, his first year at the school, he won the Director’s Prize for the best undergraduate essay. He gained the runner-up award for the best research paper in the next year for his essay ‘The Evolution of the peasantry in the British West Indies’. In 1938, while Lewis was still working on his thesis, the LSE staff took what at the time was a momentous decision. It invited him to join the faculty, apparently as its first Black staff member.”
As a student in Britain, Lewis was involved in more than academics. He became a member of “The League of Coloured Peoples”, an organization founded in 1931 the year before Lewis arrived in Britain. The League of Coloured Peoples was founded by African Jamaican Dr. Harold Moody. Dr. Moody was born in Kingston, Jamaica on October 8, 1882 and went to London in 1904 to study medicine at King’s College. After qualifying as a medical doctor in 1910 he was denied a hospital house appointment because the matron refused “to have a coloured doctor working at the hospital”. There were other positions for which he was qualified where the authorities refused to hire the doctor and he also had great difficulty accessing housing.
Ironically, Dr. Moody was front and centre in many of the “hot spots” during the blitz of London saving many British lives when the Germans ferociously attacked London with aerial bombing during the Second World War.
The League of Coloured Peoples was founded to battle the White supremacist culture to which Africans were subjected in Britain and the organization’s publication “The Keys” was part of the campaign. The young student William Arthur Lewis became one of the writers who highlighted the White supremacist culture and the oppression to which Africans were subjected in Britain and elsewhere. In a 1940 review of the White supremacist movie “Gone With the Wind” Lewis wrote about the racist portrayal of Africans in the movie. In his 2005 book “W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics” Tignor describes Lewis: “W. Arthur Lewis was one of the foremost intellectuals, economists and political activists of the twentieth century.”
Lewis’ activism continued when he moved to the USA. In his 1982 lecture entitled ‘Racial Conflict and Economic Development” which was eventually published in 1985 Lewis said: ‘Two groups are equal in the economic sense when the proportion of persons with income above a stipulated amount is the same in both groups. For example, if 10 per cent of the green group have incomes above $15,000, the blues are equal if 10 per cent of blues also have incomes above $15,000. More strictly, equality at one point on the income scale is not enough; we need equality all along the line.”
He addressed the reality of the African-American’s position in 1982 during the Reagan era and linked it to slavery. “Race also serves more generally as a tool of exploitation, maintaining an abundant supply of unskilled labour, while at the same time offering the low income of the subordinate group as evidence that it would not use more freedom intelligently. Race was necessary to the plantation system because it defined at sight those whose labour belonged to a master.”
Today, in the 21st century with an African-American President, some would argue that not much has changed for African-Americans economically. However, with the recent examples of the harassment by New York Police Department of young African-Americans who had the money to buy expensive merchandise at an ‘upscale’ department store in New York City, this part of Lewis’1982 lecture is still very pertinent: “Economic equality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for racial peace. The psychological roots of racism have also to be destroyed directly, as well as by indirect economic and political action.”