Abraham Lincoln Lewis was born on March 29, 1865, in Madison County, Florida, roughly two hours due west of Jacksonville. His family later moved to Jacksonville in 1876, where Lewis would spend the rest of his life building a legacy that would follow his name long after he passed.
“My great-grandfather was — I’m sure he would use this language — extraordinarily fortunate,” said Lewis’s great-granddaughter Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole. “He grew up with so little in terms of material means, but his drive and his faith led him to do extraordinary things. So his message to…his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, to his colleagues, to anyone who would listen; his lesson was there must be a ratio between what you have and what you give. And because he went on in life to have a great deal — after all, he was Florida’s first Black millionaire — that meant that he had a responsibility to give, and give, and give, and give.”
Today, Lewis’s legacy continues to embody the message he bequeathed to his family “and anyone who would listen” in the form of a fund recently named in his honor through The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida: The A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity and Impact Fund, a collective giving fund “to attract and deploy assets in the community to ignite transformational change in Jacksonville’s Black communities.”
Conversations surrounding the fund first began in 2020 with community leaders to explore what could be done to resolve “the issues that plague the Black community,” said Wanda Willis, The Community Foundation Vice President of Civic Leadership.
Those discussions and subsequent research helped identify the fund’s three focus areas: economic development, education and healthcare.
The online brochure about the A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity and Impact Fund explained while these three factors are “key determinants of human wellbeing…Black communities in Jacksonville experience significant disadvantages and challenges in each area. Investing in solutions that drive the elimination of these inequities will support the strengthening of Black communities and the organizations that serve them.”
Cole is a founding member of the fund and an honorary member of its Founders’ Circle.
“I can share with you in very simple terms that when I was first approached about this fund, my reaction was one of both gratitude and pride,” she said. “Gratitude that my great-grandfather’s name will be associated with a philanthropic effort that just seems to be so connected to who he was, what he did and what he hoped would be.”
“My reaction was [also] one of pride that the town that I grew up in — and those were not good days, from my perspective — those were days of just unceasing racial discrimination and legal segregation, and so how proud I am that the city that I grew up in is now at a point where it acknowledges not only the great work of a man named A.L. Lewis, but the need for those of us who have been blessed to remember our responsibility to give back,” she added.
Cole attended The Community Foundation’s August 2022 Donors Forum discussing “the legacy and impact of Black philanthropy,” which officially launched the A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity and Impact Fund.
“It was quite special to have her as part of this initiative,” Willis said. “She was certainly part of some of the earlier conversations in pulling together this fund, and it was just so befitting with her great-grandfather having been one of the first Black philanthropists in the state of Florida to lend his name in support of this fund.”
Lewis was one of seven partners to found the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Some of his other accomplishments included founding the Lincoln Golf and Country Club and American Beach. The Community Foundation added in a recap of the Donors Forum, he “contributed great time, talent and treasure to a number of Black colleges and Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church.”
Cole hopes this fund inspires others to follow in her great-grandfather’s footsteps and continue to give back to their community.
“Each of us, I’m sure [is] not wealthy like my great-grandfather,” she said. “But I have been fortunate so I must have a relationship, or better put, a ratio, between what I do have and what I give. Everybody can give something. Those of us who have been fortunate must give the most.”
A grant-making process for the A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity and Impact Fund is expected to launch in early 2023, Willis explained. Once the grant applications are available, a committee will help determine how and where the funds will be distributed.
The A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity and Impact Fund is one of several funds and initiatives at The Community Foundation with a focus on supporting and empowering the Jacksonville’s Black communities.
“The first being the Eartha M.M. White Legacy Fund,” said Willis, “Which was a $1.4 million endowment established at The Community Foundation almost 20 years ago, and the MyVillage project focuses on — it’s a collaboration of Black-led, Black-focused organizations here in the city — so it’s a collaboration of all of those organizations doing the work in the community that is centered around Jacksonville’s education.”
As a collective giving fund, this initiative is comprised of funds given by many donors rather than a single person.
Those interested in helping can visit www.jaxcf.org/black-philanthropy for more information or to make a gift. The Community Foundation also accepts “legacy gifts” where donors designate a portion of their estate to the fund.
By Michele Leivas