|Rev. Dr. William Henry Varney Lewis, Sr.
To journal the life of Rev. Dr. William Henry Varney Lewis, Sr., is to put into picture the story of a man on a quest beginning from his native country, Liberia to Africa and unto the rest of the world; for he did traveled half the world and in doing so, lend valid credence to the fact that luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity.
Wicked, as he was affectionately called by his peers before joining the Christian ministry, was born on April 14, 1924 on the banks of the Mafa River in Tawor district near Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia, West Africa. He was born into the Vai tribe and given the name Varney by his mother, the late Mrs. Margaret Famatta James Dalmelda, who was the great granddaughter of the late Levi D. James, one of the freed US slaves who founded Liberia in 1820. His Father, the late Solomon Boikai G. Lewis was a member of the Kru Tribe which made wicked a kru man even though he grew up and spent his life, a Vai man due to the fact that he was raised by his mother and her relatives in Cape Mount.
When he turned one, William was sent to Monrovia, the Liberian Capital, to be weaned by his aunt, the late Mrs. Julia Lewis Stubbenfield Ketter. At school-going age she sent him to the Lott Carey Baptist Mission School; he ran away from there as it was not to his liken. However, he was returned and continued there until he reached the fourth grade. After the death of his father, he left Robertsport along with two friends, Ernest Jones and Taweh David, and continued his education at Liberian College under Dr. T.E. Ward. In 1943 he went to the College of West Africa where he completed the ninth grade and later attended the Booker T. Washington Institute (B.W.I) in Kakata, which is about 45 miles from Monrovia. He studied agriculture under the American specialist Charles G. Trout. While in school, young Lewis simultaneously served with the Sixth regiment of the Liberian Frontier Force under the training of the late T.V.A Smith of the USA. He rose to the rank of Captain and served the army with pride.
William entered the world of entertainment in 1948 when he played drums in the High Life Band organized by Edwin Harris and led by Richardlu Morris, the former assistance Secretary of Agriculture. Other members of the band included Joseph Richards, Dr. Nehemiah Cooper and J. Buster Clinton. William’s skill as a tap drummer and singer helped the band to many top engagements including its first official which was the wedding of General Nathaniel Richardson to the daughter of Post Master Reginald Sherman. In addition, Lewis sang and danced with the Greenwood Singers, a group led by Jacob Brown and included Sylvester Thomas, Ernest Jones, Estelle Brown, Lucille Railly Brumskin, Julia Moore Thomas, Hime Jones, Kendrick Brown and the Cobin sisters. Lewis made this group famous with his drum playing and signature dances (boogie-woogie and the jitter bug). For this he was given the name “Wicked” which spread and made him famous as even the than president of Liberia, William V.S. Tubman, called him “Wicked”.
While performing with the band one night, Lewis almost lost his life when he left the stage to come to the aid of girl who was being harassed by a bunch of Texans who was in the country to build the harbor. They were fifteen in number so Lewis drew his revolver to scare them off. When he had let-off all his rounds all fifteen jumped him. He was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized for two months; and at one point reported dead with the customary church bell being rung in his memory. He recovered, filed and won a $10,000.00 suit against the men; the bulk of which went for hospital and legal expenses. After his recovery, he traveled the African Coast by signing on board a ship where he worked in the captain’s cabin.
In December of 1953, William married Norwegian Gerd Karin Fredrickson. She joined him as a dance partner. To the union was born two children, William Jr. in 1954 and Karin Lewis (Barrow) in 1956
Lewis met and entertained a host of people including celebrities and high governmental officials from all around the world. While in Europe, he put out the welcoming mat for entertainers from 1950 to 1955. He would meet them upon arrival and assist them with accommodations (Lewis spoke Norwegian, Swedish and Danish fluently) and sometimes perform with them as he was a drummer as well as a tenor saxophone player. Two of his firmest friends, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong, were among a number of these personalities. Other entertainers with whom Lewis interacted included Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Paterson, Frank West, Nat King Cole, Sonia Henie, Quincy Jones (than with Hampton) and Count Basie with whom he hosted a dinner for Josephine Baker at the Grand Hotel in Oslo Norway in 1954.
Lewis appeared in two Norwegian films in Oslo, Norway: “Hekesenetter” (Night of the Witches) in which he danced with film star Ingrid Vardund, and “En Tur I Det Gronne” (A Trip in the Green Grass). In this film, he danced with film star Liv Stromsted of Norway.
Leaving Norway, Lewis traveled with his wife and son to Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and Spain. In Barcelona, he organized a six-piece band and did a radio broadcast over Radio Barcelona. While in Spain, he visited Madrid, Valencia, and Tenerife. He also played in clubs during those visits. On his way back to Liberia, he visited Las Plamas. Lewis’s travels abroad earned him the recognition as an unofficial ambassador of Liberia.
Upon his return to Monrovia with his family in March, 1955 he was appointed director of Folklore and Culture Affairs by President William V.S. Tubman under the department of Interior. In March of 1956 he opened the William Lewis’ Pioneer Cultural Center, the first Liberian museum, near the James Spriggs Payne Airport. Here, he entertained official visitors from all parts of the world. Due to this undertaking, he was given the chance to set up an office of arts and craft for the department of the interior of Liberia and to accompany the president on the first executive council meeting in the Bopolu District in Lofa County, Liberia. He recorded the entire proceedings for broadcasting purposes. In 1959, Lewis arranged and directed a tribal cultural performance atop the Executive Mansion to entertain President Tubman’s special guest, Prince Barnard of the Netherlands. The President had come to rely on Lewis’ expertise in arranging these performances as he had also put up similar shows for other official guests including Richard Nixon (than Vice President of the United States), Maurice Dorman of Sierra Leone, Kweme Nkrumah of Ghana (who called Lewis “Teacher” after he was taught by Lewis to do the Quadrill), Nelson A. Rockefeller, Patrice Lamumba of the Congo. Lewis also entertained the Big Three (Tubman of Liberia, Sekou Toure of Guinea and Nkrumah) in Sanniquelle, Nimba County when the three met to discussed the formation of the Organization of African Unity, the OAU. Other official guest Lewis entertained included Billy Graham, President Lubeck of Germany, Madibo Keita of Mail, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Ben Bella and Houphoet Boigny of the Ivory Coast.
In 1961, Lewis met and entertained Queen Elizabeth II of England and Prince Phillips at the British Embassy near Monrovia. Also with permission from President Tubman, he made a visit and personal presentation to the than president of Nigeria, Nandi Azikiwe. That same year, Lewis took the first high life band out of Liberia to Sierra Leone to entertain the late Prime Minister Maguia. He organized the “Wicked’s Combo” in 1963 made up of musicians from Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone and took same to the Ivory Coast, Freetown and Accra playing in clubs and broadcasting over local radios.
That same year, upon request from the president, Lewis entertained the prince of Sweden, King Carl Gustaf, 16th at the dedication ceremonies of the J.V. Lamco Railroad in Nimba. At that show he presented cultural dances featuring the Vai, Gola, Kpelle Mano, and Mendi tribes of Liberia and mask dancers from the Kissi, Lorma and Gbandi tribes.
Besides serving Liberia as its first director of culture and folklore and musical ambassador, Lewis also serve the government as assistance secretary of the department of Interior under Secretary Harrison Grisby and later, Public Relations Officer for Montserrado County.
The highlight of Rev. Dr. William H. Lewis’ life came in 1966 when he yielded to the calling of The Lord and joined the Eliza Turner Memorial Church under the pastoral ship of the late Rev. J.B. Mason. Evangelist Mother Zetter Prout persuaded him to join a prayer band and he was unofficially ordained in Kingsville, #7, witnessed by his late aunt Mary Lois Seibo who had versioned his calling and told him about it many years ago. Lewis recalls that all through his life he was constantly told that he would receive the call to preach although he resisted and chalked up the comments to be superstitious. So, following his conviction, he leased his house and migrated to America in 1971 with his son and daughter, William and Karin.
In the United States Lewis fully accepted the reality that he had a calling to preach God’s Word and thus began to prepare for his mission. Through the courtesy of Deacon Reginald English, he was introduced to the family of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Germany Town, Pa. which he joined on June 6, 1971 along with William and Karin. He was ordained there and in 1976 re-obligated himself to the AME conference.
He studied and graduated from the Bishop S. Harris Adult Training Seminary and received an honorary DD degree from the Non-Secretarian Ministers Association, Inc.
Lewis preached in his native language (Vai) as well as English. He preached at churches of all denominations including Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Seventh Day Adventist, Holiness and Assembles of God. Before his passing, he served as one of the assistance pastor to Rev. Martha A. Lang at Mt. Tabor AME Church in Philadelphia.
On Sunday, October 7th, 2007, at 5:06 a.m., God in His infinite wisdom sent his Angels down to call his faithful servant Rev. Dr. William H. Lewis, Sr. home to Glory.
Treasuring his memory is his wife, Sylvia Phillips Lewis (whom he married on September 5th, 1981, and with whom he had his last set of kids including Tenelle who predeceased him); Seventeen children which include Margaret Lewis-Kaifa, William Lewis, Jr., Abraham Lewis, Karin Lewis-Barrow, Henry Varney Lewis, Boikai Lewis, Ebony Lewis, Sylvia Lewis, Amin Lewis, Katherine Lewis, Tenetta Lewis and Solomon Lewis; Also, a host of grand and great children, nieces and nephews, cousins and friends.
© 2007 by The Perspective
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