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One On 1: Essence Magazine Founder Ed Lewis

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of the publisher of one of the most successful and longest running publications in the country, Ed Lewis of Essence magazine.

Ed Lewis is a busy man. He’s a successful entrepreneur, sits on several boards, and is the recipient of many awards. But if he could add one more line to the resume?

“I’m a frustrated blues singer, so I have passion for one day going out and singing the blues," he says.

But there’s no need for Lewis to sing the blues at Essence magazine, which he co-founded 34 years ago; he is the magazine's publisher. He is also Chief Executive Officer of Essence Communications - which includes a book publishing division - the annual Essence Awards, and the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, now in its tenth year.

Of course, the day-to-day workload has changed a bit since those early days 34 years ago.

“It's changed drastically,” Lewis says. “In the day-to-day we did everything: took out the garbage; painted the offices; we all wrote, participating in the editorial process. So all of us were participating during those early days, but now it's a totally different way of managing."

Ed Lewis grew up in the Bronx, poor. As a young child he watched his parents' economic struggle - his mother worked at a factory, his father worked the overnight shift at City College.

A few months ago, Lewis was invited to an event at City College by Colin Powell.

“A number of people were asking me. ÎWhat is your connection to City College?’ And I said, ÎAside from being invited by the Secretary of State, I have a real connection to City College. In this hall, the Great Hall, my father was a janitor for 25 years, when janitorial service was very, very hard,’" he says. “I have the last paycheck that my father had. He made $$5,200. I keep that as a memento to remind me of what his son has done over these many, many years."

Lewis learned early, very early, that it is better to lead rather than follow in business.

“I had an uncle who ran his own business,” he says. “He used to talk to me about having control over one's life, having control over one's destiny; the only way you can have that is to have something of your own."

The “something of his own” became Essence magazine, the first magazine designed specifically for African-American women. The idea for essence was born at a Wall Street meeting in 1968, a meeting designed to create black-owned businesses.

Lewis was working at the old First National City Bank at the time. He walked out of the meeting with partners, and a purpose.

“We just had this desire to bring something into the world that black women could feel good about - to give hope, to provide jobs, to provide a voice for black women," he says. “I remember our first issue, we had 13 pages of ads, and that was May of 1970. Then in June and July we only had five pages each, and so you just had to survive. My mother used to tell me that when Ebony came out in 1945, what blacks used to do is turn the page down so as not to let other people know that they were reading a black magazine. This is 1945, so here we are now - this is 1970 — and sea changes are taking place because blacks had begun to feel very good about themselves - black is beautiful, the whole civil rights movement - and so for black women to begin to see their voices, to begin to see themselves in the pages of a magazine that they could call their own, was very important.”

Ed Lewis's journey from the Bronx to Times Square included one unusual turn for a young black man growing up in New York in the 1940’s and 50’s — the University of New Mexico. On his first trip there, Lewis almost didn’t make it.

“Going across the country in my first airplane that I'd ever been in in my life, the engine - it was TWA - caught fire,” he says. “I knew that my life was over, and I had another fellow sitting next to me, and we held hands. We were reading the Bible because we knew that was it.”

Lewis made it to New Mexico safely.

He was an all-city fullback at Dewitt Clinton High School and attended college on a football scholarship. When he arrived in 1958, he was one of only 12 black students out of 8,000.

“There's certainly loneliness, but you have to adjust, you have to adapt,” he says. “And my adapting revolved around meeting some really, really wonderful people who became my friends and enabled me to continue to grow and to do well there."

When Lewis returned for his sophomore year, he was surprised when he was informed that he'd lost his football scholarship.

“What I found out years later, the reason why I lost my football scholarship was not because of my lack of athletic skills, but because I was seen as being a radical, because of my outspoken views about civil rights, about Martin Luther King and about Malcolm X," he says. “I didn't speak very often, but when I spoke I made some people feel uncomfortable. I used to wear my dashikis, and I had a lot of hair.”

But Lewis stayed at New Mexico to earn Bachelor's and Masters degrees. Only one time did he think about leaving school - 1963, in the aftermath of the church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I was just stunned, and I almost made a decision to leave school,” he says. “Two of my friends - one of my dearest friends who was Mexican, and another individual from Brazil - said to me, ÎEd, if you leave and you go to the south, the first time someone hits you you're not going to turn your cheek, and you have to understand the consequences. More than likely if you stay in school you may be able to have even greater impact with regard to what goes on in your community.”

In 1965, the civil rights movement was in full bloom. Lewis returned to New York and got a job in the banking business, choosing to work within the system rather than against it.

“By working within, did that mean that you would not continue to be who you are, in terms of being an African-American? I've always felt that you can hold true to your values, but at the same time learn the basics of whatever job you're doing and do the best you can,” he says. “But you do not have to subjugate yourself because of who you are as an African-American."

Lewis's standing in the business world has brought him national exposure, and an overnight invitation to the Clinton White House.

"Having interaction with him at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning with three other colleagues, that was one of most extraordinary things that ever happened,” he says. “The president of the United States talking about a variety of issues, including AIDS in South Africa, Medicaire - it was mind boggling."

But Lewis's stature and financial success have not prevented him from speaking out on the issues which touch him most, often in the pages of his magazine.

About voting rights, he says, “I have no tolerance for anyone who doesn't vote.”

Another issue dear to him is what he sees as police brutality. Lewis protested in response to both the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases, and was arrested. But he believes the situation in the city has improved under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for whom he campaigned.

“The Police Department and the mayor are much more sensitive to community concerns, and in the end it's all about us working together,” he says.

It's been a long journey for Ed Lewis, from the Bronx to his perch above Times Square. He lives in Manhattan now, married with two grown daughters who work for Essence Communications,

He recently returned to his alma mater, Dewitt Clinton High School, to speak to students.

"I was born in the Bronx. I was born in the projects just like you,” he told the kids. “They could relate to that. I could connect to them, because most of those kids live in the projects When I was introduced to all those young high school students that Ed Lewis is the founder of Essence and co-founder of Latina magazine, the young ladies and boys they were astounded. [They said] ÎYou went to DeWitt Clinton High School? You graduated?’ I said, ÎYes I did, and you can do it too.'”

- Budd Mishkin

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