Dr. Nkrumah Lewis, a Winston-Salem State University professor and author of “Becoming a Butterfly: From Prison to Ph.D.,” shared lessons from the School of Hard Knocks and the wisdom of an unconventionally broad spectrum of life experiences last week.
He gave the keynote address during the May 9 Winston Lake Family YMCA 16th Annual Black Achievers in Business and Industry Awards Gala at the Sundance Plaza Hotel. The event is the culmination of the 2012-2013 Black Achievers program, an academic achievement and career development initiative for middle and high school students.
Lewis, a Durham native, spent much of his childhood living in fear of his father, a respected pastor and magistrate who Lewis says routinely battered his wife and children.
“On Sundays after my father preached, he came home and I would see my mother beaten… I would see my mother’s blood on the floor,”Lewis said. “It drove me away from my faith for awhile because I couldn’t reconcile it to the two people I called my father.”
Following a particularly bloody altercation as a teen, Lewis says his father kicked him out of the house. He became homeless, roaming the streets with fellow Bloods gang members.
“Hurting people hurt people, so I became a member of the Bloods gang and I started hanging with young men who had a disdain for life,” he said. “…We were all so manly as boys, but nobody wanted to say man, ‘I’m hurt.’”
Despite his precarious position in life, Lewis did not forsake his education. He graduated from high school with honors, but the torment in his mind prevented him from leaving the negative lifestyle behind. Lewis was incarcerated for two years for a murder he says he did not commit. That proved to be a turning point in his life. At the behest of other prisoners, he read countless books and learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other black leaders.
“I became a scholar in prison, (doing) the things that I should have been doing on the outside,” he said. I’m not bitter because it saved my life. Had I not been incarcerated, I would have killed somebody or they would’ve killed me. I was looking for death and it was running from me.”
Authorities eventually dropped the charges against Lewis, and he began his new life in earnest. He was accepted to UNC Greensboro, where he earned an undergraduate degree; he eventually earned a doctorate from Virginia Tech. These days, Lewis, an assistant professor of sociology at WSSU, spends his time working to ensure that young people don’t have to suffer as he did to reach a place in life that he says can only be described as grace.
“I’m so thankful to have endured all of that pain, and I say that because now you don’t have to. You can hear my story and say, ‘Nah, I’m going in another direction,’” he told the audience. “Every chance that I get to sow a seed, to extend a hand in love, I do so. It’s my honor, it’s my privilege. It’s my responsibility.”
Eleven Teen Achievers were feted during the gala, along with leaders in the business community who have supported the program and 2013 Adult Achievers, who have signed on to serve the program as mentors beginning in the fall.
Pepsico employee James Anderson II was rounding out his first year as an Adult Achiever. The 28-year-old North Carolina State University alumnus says he plans to continue his service as a member of the program’s Gala Planning Committee.
“It was great,” the High Point native said of his experience with Black Achievers. “I can honestly say that I learned a lot; it’s not just them learning from me, but I hopefully helped them out in determining their next steps.”
The students, all seniors in high school, also received scholarships during the celebration.
Parkland High School’s Ashley Crawford took home the program’s most esteemed honor – the $3,000 Moses H. Lucas Scholarship. Crawford, a varsity basketball player, is headed to Spelman College this fall to major in English. The aspiring publishing company owner has been actively involved with a variety of Winston Lake YMCA programs, including Jazzy Jumpers, Youth in Government and the YBA (Youth Basketball Association).
“I know that I’ve put a lot of time into the YMCA. I’ve honed a lot of relationships and I’ve made a lot of connections, so I kind of knew that I had this connection,” commented the 18 year-old, who holds a 4.4 weighted GPA. “I’ve volunteered (at the Black Achievers Gala) every year as an usher. I’ve always seen the seniors sit up there. Every year, I’ve said, ‘I can’t wait until I’m a senior so I can sit in front of everybody.’ It feels great.”
Carver High’s Drew Wilson received the Judge Roland Hayes Scholarship, named for the county’s first African American District Court judge. Like the late Judge Hayes, Wilson, a varsity linebacker, is active in the community, volunteering with the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, Second Harvest Food Bank of NWNC and Social Services.
“I feel like giving back because people gave back to me when I was younger, so I feel like it’s a great opportunity for me to do the same,” said Wilson, who is headed to NC A&T State University, where he plans to study engineering. “I actually tried real hard to do what I do – to make good grades – so I actually feel honored to receive this award.”
Teen Achievers Breyelle Braswell, Ciara Dove, Eboni Hosch, KaRonne McNeil, Courtney Murphy, Raymond Rice, Kiara Smith, Coleman Squire and Julia Yancey were also honored during the gala, as were Adult Achievers Solange Ahoudji, Nathan Baskett, Dawn Bright, Betty Dulin, Candice Gaither, Tony Holiday, Dr. Cecelia McDaniel, Galvin Moye, Monica Roberts, James Stinson and Eva Terry.
Ten individuals and organizations were also honored for their service to the community during the program. Sports announcer Albert “Al” Roseboro and The Napper Sisters took home Lifetime Service Awards, while Winston-Salem Foundation’s Michael Clements, WSSU Men’s Basketball Coach Bobby Collins, dentist John Oliver, singer Dionn Owen, local NAACP president S. Wayne Patterson and retired Carver High athletic director Alfred Poe received Distinguished Service Awards. Absolute Auto Care Owner Victor Clark, artist Leo Rucker and 311 Meat and Produce Market owner Chris Wallace were the recipients of 2013 Minority Business Awards. Fox 8 Reporter Jasmine Spencer served as mistress of ceremonies.
For more information about Dr. Lewis, visit www.nkrumahlewis.com.