Erma Mozelle Duffy Lewis (1926–1982)

Image Courtesy Gloria Lawsha Smith

Erma Mozelle Duffy Lewis, founder of the first African-American community theatre in Fort Worth, Texas, was born February 7, 1926, in Fort Worth to Haywood James Duffy and Hazel Mae Calloway Duffy. She was the oldest of eight children and graduated from historic I. M. Terrell High School. Duffy studied theatre and modern dance at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Texas College in Tyler, Texas. She married James Edward Lewis, a professional musician, in 1948.

In 1960 while working as the teenage program director at the Highland Park Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Lewis introduced the performing arts to students in the Fort Worth’s African American community. She began teaching drama, music, and beginning and advanced levels of ballet to youth of color in a makeshift dance studio without bars and mirrors.

Lewis was involved in other significant civic activities.  Beginning in 1960, Lewis sponsored, for the next twenty-two years, the Junior Debutantes, eleventh and twelfth grade African-American women at Dunbar High School. That collaboration led to the founding of the Sojourner Truth Players, the first African-American theatre group and nonprofit cultural arts center in the Fort Worth area. When the Fort Worth YWCA desegregated its summer residence camp for girls in 1969, she became the first African-American to serve as camp director.

In 1972 Lewis founded the Sojourner Truth Players, Inc. (STP). They gave their first performance on June 10, 1972, James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner in the annex of the Community Christian Church, which was destroyed by fire in 1977. Using seed money to purchase a vacant building that was formerly a neighborhood grocery store, Lewis and volunteers renovated it, transforming it into the Sojourner Truth Cultural Arts Center which opened on June 11, 1980.  

The new center hosted what had now become a nationally prominent African-American theatre group. One of the most memorable moments came in 1980 when STP produced and performed the Broadway musical, Purlie, and hosted the playwright, Ossie Davis and his wife, actress Ruby Dee, in Fort Worth. Funding, however, was increasingly difficult to obtain. When a second fire destroyed the center in 1981, at the same time it experienced dramatic cutbacks in funding, and Lewis took herself off salary, trying to keep the troupe afloat.

Erma Mozelle Duffy Lewis died on March 8, 1982, in Fort Worth, Texas. She was fifty-six. STP sustained itself for a short time afterward but with the loss of its inspirational leader and cash-strapped, the group never quite recovered and permanently closed its doors in 1991. Lewis’s legacy, however, continued. The Sojourner Truth Players became the model for Curtis King, founder of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Inc. (TBAAL) in Dallas, Texas, in 1977 and Rudy Eastman, founder of Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth in 1981. Both King and Eastman received their training under Lewis and carried forward her vision of theatrical arts programs that served and educated the African American communities of Fort Worth and Dallas.