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J. Vance Lewis
Out of the Ditch. A True Story of an Ex-Slave
Houston: Rein & Sons Co., Printers, 1910.


Little is actually known about Lewis other than what he writes about himself in Out of the Ditch, his 1910 memoir. According to that book, Lewis's Louisiana birth was marked by his former master in the family Bible: "Born of Doc and Rosa Lewis, on December the 25th, 18 . . . a son, whose name is Joe, and whose birth has increased my personal property one thousand dollars" (p. 8). While the year of his birth is uncertain, Lewis does note that he was young enough not to understand the ramifications of the Emancipation Proclamation and was pleased when his family chose to remain on the plantation. After watching his father serve as a makeshift judge for a case on the plantation, Lewis became determined to attend law school. He began his higher education at Leland University in New Orleans. He later studied law at three different institutions: Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, an unnamed school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Chicago College of Law. Over the course of his legal career, Lewis practiced law in Michigan, Illinois, and Texas. In 1897 he was also admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Lewis gave very little information regarding his personal life in his narrative; it is known that he eventually married Pauline R. Gray. The date and circumstances of his death are unknown.

Lewis opens his memoir by explaining its title: "Under slave conditions the author would have lived and died, both figuratively and actually, 'in the ditch.' Under condition of emancipation there was a chance to climb out and fight for life and liberty" (p. 5). As the title indicates, the adult Lewis is acutely aware of the destructiveness of slavery, but he admits that as a child he understood little of what the institution meant: "I played among the wild flowers and wandered, in high glee, over hill and hollow, enchanted with the beauty of nature, and knew not that I was a slave, the son of slaves. Nor did I know that I was born at the moment where . . . disruption and secession hung like a cloud over the nation" (p. 8).

After Emancipation, Lewis, still a child, fears being "set adrift to wander," and parting with the son of his master, "who was as true a friend as I ever had" (p. 9). His fears are quickly assuaged, however, as his family chooses to remain on the plantation as hired workers. While there, Lewis watches his father adjudicate an alleged case of "hog theft" on the plantation (p. 18). Fascinated by the trial and his father's adept handling of the difficulties therein, Lewis determines to pursue a career as a lawyer. Lewis thus helps to build a school on the plantation where he receives his first formal education. During his education, Lewis is "left an orphan to fight life's battles" after the death of both his parents (p. 24). Despite his difficulties, Lewis continues his studies and saves money for college.

Lewis attends Leland University and, upon completion of his coursework, becomes a teacher and a principal in order to save the money necessary to pursue his law degree. He matriculates at Lincoln University, but after two terms he meets an African American lawyer who encourages him to study in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as "They train the head and the soul, too, for service" (p. 31). Lewis transfers to Ann Arbor, and graduates in 1894, the same year he receives admission to the bar by the Supreme Court of Michigan. With "some things yet to learn," he takes another course at the Chicago College of Law, graduating in 1897 and gaining admission to the bar of Illinois (p. 31). On November 22, 1897, Lewis is admitted to the bar by the Supreme Court of the United States; he notes that he took his oath with "eighteen lawyers of the bar from other states, all being white save myself" (p. 32).

Lewis begins visiting the courts of the judges he knows in Chicago in order to watch experienced lawyers. He describes a number of cases he sees, often noting the mistreatment of women and African Americans in the courtroom. During this period Lewis tells the judges that he would "appreciate an opportunity to represent any person too poor to employ counsel" (p. 34). Soon he is given his first case defending John Donovan, a white man accused of murder. Because Lewis is black, Donovan refuses to speak to him: Donovan "was so overcome with hatred, astonishment, and scorn," that he cries out, "Is this what the State of Illinois gives a man to help break his neck?" (p. 39). Nonetheless, Lewis defends Donovan, who is found not guilty. Upon hearing this verdict, Lewis is "unable to express the feeling that came over me," understanding that "I was on trial for my professional life, and he for his natural life" (p. 55). Lewis' victory leads to multiple requests for legal assistance, and he spends much of his memoir documenting some of his more memorable or difficult cases.

Lewis settles in Houston, Texas, where he quickly builds and expands his practice to include civil and criminal cases. Unfortunately, his success brings detractors. A group of "conspirators" accuses him of "some irregularity" in "every case [he] had on file" (p. 84). Despite being unable to find any evidence of such claims, a judge suspends Lewis's license for six months. Lewis uses the time to travel through Europe, delivering speeches on race relations in America and studying law in London. Upon his return, he finds additional charges have been filed against him in regards to his acquisition of property. Lewis is arrested and forced to post bond, "thus making [Lewis] a bondman for seven years" and ending his ability to work with criminal cases in the county until those seven years passed. Refusing to be slowed by his detractors, Lewis takes on over 3800 divorce cases. Lewis is eventually acquitted of any "irregularity" in his cases, only to face death threats in a later hearing, due to his race and success (p. 84).

Much of the remainder of Lewis' narrative focuses on his ongoing faith in both humanity and America, as well as his experiences practicing medicine later in his career. Lewis also includes a few comments on his personal life, admitting that he has begun turning down cases that would take him away "from my home and fireside" (p. 153). He speaks highly of his wife, who possesses the qualities of a "queen": "She is dignified, cultured and refined" (p. 153). Lewis ends the narrative with nostalgia, optimism, and hope by citing "the old saying": "Old wood to burn, / Old wine to drink, / Old books to read, / Old friends to love" (p. 154).

Meredith Malburne

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