Marilyn Lewis, 48, schoolteacher, missionary, active in civil rights

February 28, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Marilyn Lewis, a former Baltimore teacher, missionary and civil rights campaigner who was known to friends as "Swahili," died Feb. 20 in Pasadena, Calif., of an apparent heart attack. She was 48.

From an early age, Ms. Lewis exhibited an independent streak and an understanding of her African-American heritage.

"She and my mother would go round and round," her elder sister, Vanessa Lewis, recalled with a laugh. "When she started wearing her hair `natural,' what people back then called an `Afro,' it was the first time I had ever seen one. And at a time when most people in the neighborhood referred to themselves as `colored,' she insisted on calling herself `black.'

"And she was only 13 or 14 at the time."

Her course was set.

Dubbed "Swahili," or "great communicator," by friends, she defied her mother's wishes and boarded a bus with a delegation from West Baltimore bound for Atlanta to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963.

In 1969, she received her diploma from Edmondson High School and enrolled at what now is Morgan State University, where she earned degrees in education and Afro-American studies by 1977. During that same period, she attended the University of Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar. Later, she completed a master's of education at Loyola College.

Ms. Lewis dabbled in a broad range of political movements and causes, from the self-help actions of the Black Panther Party to the early electoral campaigns of former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and Carl Stokes, a former Baltimore school board and City Council member and mayoral candidate.

"Every time there was an election, my mother's house on Edmondson Avenue would be jammed with people," Vanessa Lewis said. "Years later, when my sister came home to visit, people would still come up to her on the street and greet her like it was only yesterday: `Hey, Swa! Where ya been?'

"She was one of those people who had an impact on the lives of others."

Ms. Lewis wrapped her academic and political pursuits around her 26-year career as a teacher. In Baltimore, she taught at Northwestern High School and what is now Pimlico Middle School, where she rose in 1986 to head the social studies department. She was named Baltimore Teacher of the Year in 1980.

But she had begun to hear the voice of a higher calling, joining the Church of the Lord and the Baltimore School of the Bible. Soon, she was engrossed in research into the often unrecorded lives of black missionaries.

In 1990, she resigned her teaching post and moved to Texas, where she earned a master's degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1994. She moved to Pasadena that year to begin work on a doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary.

She taught history and social studies at several public schools, and co-founded Pasadena Institute of the Bible in 1995.

Before her death, she had been working on a doctoral thesis called "The African American in Christian Missionary Movement" and teaching history at John Muir High School in Pasadena to support her Bible mission.

A funeral service will be held in Baltimore at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Church of God, 4310 Edmondson Ave., followed by interment at Arbutus Memorial Park.

In addition to Vanessa Lewis, she is survived by another sister, Romona Lewis, and two brothers, William and John Lewis, all of Baltimore.

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