Since hearing the news of Sylvester Lewis’s passing my mind has been racing to put context to what it is that we lost. Sylvester’s passing was not only a loss for LSP but for the larger community beyond the borders of Shelby County. It was in my capacity as the Lynching Sites of Memphis (LSP) Project Manager for the 100th Memorialization of the lynching of Ell Persons that I met Sylvester in his capacity as Vice Chairperson of the Shelby County Historical Commission (SCHC).
He had a very genuine warm engaging presence that drew all-in who encountered him. That was certainly true for me. It was not long after our first meeting that we established we had more in common than just the work of LSP and SCHC.
I discovered that he was a retired US Postal Service employee who worked in Detroit, and together we discovered that he had worked alongside my uncle in the same facility.
He, like my uncle Luther Caesae Keith, shared a passion for African American history and history in general. That passion is intensely alive in me and I share that with both of them.
In this information intensive age, it is easy to believe that everything we need to know has been written in a book, or we can “google it”, or shout “Hey Siri”. As one writer has said, “we have so much information at our fingertips, but it’s not all meaningful or relevant to us. Stories help us peer into the past and make pathways into the future”.
Sylvester was a storyteller of history in the truest sense of the West African tradition of a “Griot”, or the more westernized version a “Bard”.
My uncle once wrote, “History is not about the story of men and women of one race or color and the neglect or omission of the men and women of another race or color. . . It deals with people in all times and places and should present the contributions of all peoples to world civilizations.”
The departing of Sylvester brings us once again to real understanding of a common expression heard around the world, “when an elder dies, a whole library is lost,” take your rest Mr. Librarian.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 - Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
John Ashworth, LSP Board Member