About Abraham Lincoln Lewis
In recognizing the 2016 Harambee Celebration awardees, we remember and pay homage to Florida’s first Black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis.
Abraham Lincoln Lewis was born on March 29, 1865 in Madison, West Florida. Although he grew to be a very successful man, Lewis had a difficult start. Lewis was the son of Robert Lewis, a South Carolina blacksmith who was a slave on one of the many plantations in Madison. Both of Lewis’ parents struggled throughout their lives and did not know how to read or write, which was a result of a law that made it a crime to teach slaves to read. However, when the slaves were freed, things began to change. The couple named their son Abraham Lincoln in gratitude for the president who set them free; Lincoln never used this name and instead chose to be called A.L. Lewis. Rising above from the hardships, Lewis dedicated his life to overcome and compensate for the segregation imposed on blacks. Lewis joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1884 and served in several capacities as a member. He worked diligently in a Masonic Order and through his business acumen, the Masonic Temple of greater Jacksonville was built in the early 1900’s.
In early 1901, Lewis, along with Reverend E.J. Gregg, E.W. Latson, A.W. Price, Dr. Arthur W. Smith, J.F. Valentine and Reverend J. Melton Waldron, founded Florida’s first insurance company, the African American Industrial Benefit Association, later renamed Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Afro-American Life Insurance Company was founded to provide affordable health insurance and death benefits to Florida’s black residents. In May of 1901, the great Jacksonville Fire destroyed the first office of the insurance company just two months after it opened. As a result, the office moved to the home of Lewis, who served as the treasurer of at that time. Lewis became president of Afro-American Life Insurance Company in 1919 and expanded the to have locations throughout Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. In the 1920s, Lewis began providing mortgages for individual homes. After 80 years of serving black southerners, the company closed its doors in 1987. Although most noted for the Afro, A.L. Lewis started Florida´s first black-owned and operated bottling company and assisted Booker T. Washington in establishing the national Negro Business League. Among his achievements with the insurance company, Lewis was a humanitarian, donating to public and private schools across the country to fund the education of the black youth. In 1926, Lewis also founded the Lincoln Golf and Country Club in Jacksonville. Celebrities from around the country came to the club to play and dine.
In 1935 the Pension Bureau, a pioneering subset of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, bought 33 acres of shorefront property on Amelia Island which was located in Nassau County, FL. Lewis, the invited company employees to make use of the beach, and hosted company outings there. The Pension Bureau also had the land subdivided, and offered parcels for sale to company executives and shareowners, and to community leaders. Two later land acquisitions expanded the community’s size to 216 acres. In 1940, with many building lots unsold, the Afro offered them for sale to the wider black community. After World War II, home construction took off. American Beach also included hotels, restaurants and nightclubs in addition to homes.
Lewis accomplished much throughout his life and became Florida’s first black millionaire and one of the wealthiest men in the south, sharing his wealth with historical black colleges and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He also served on the Board of Trustees of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, for over twenty years. Lewis was married to his wife, Mary Frances Sammis, from 1865 to 1923, and together they had one son, James Henry Lewis. After Sammis’ death in 1923, Lewis remarried in 1925 to a woman named Elzona Nobileo. They remained married until Lewis’ death in 1947. Lewis is interred in a nationally historic mausoleum, which became a part of the federal registry in 1997.
Entrepreneur, Founder, Leader, Visionary, Philanthropist. We salute you and your legacy, Abraham Lincoln Lewis!