Reginald Lewis Was America’s First Black Billionare — Long Before Oprah and Bob Johnson!

Reginald F. Lewis

Reginald F. Lewis was the first African American to build a billion dollar company. He was one of the wealthiest African Americans in the 1980's, and also one of the first to be included on the Forbes list of the richest Americans.
Lewis was born on December 7, 1942, in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Virginia State University with a degree in political science. In 1965, he was one of the select number of Black students who attended a summer school program at Harvard Law School. Subsequently, Lewis was invited to attend Harvard Law School that fall - the only person in the 148-year history of the school to be admitted before applying.

Lewis later set up Wall Street’s first Black-owned law firm, his own practice where he worked for 15 years as a corporate lawyer. Later, he created a venture capital firm called TLC Group L.P and negotiated the $22.5 million purchase of the McCall Pattern Company - a home sewing pattern business. He streamlined operations, increased marketing, and led the company to two of their most profitable years in history.

In 1987, Lewis bought Beatrice International Foods for $985 million, making it the largest African-American owned and managed business in the country at that time. At its peak in 1996, the company had sales of $2.2 billion.

More than just a business man

As a philanthropist, Lewis made great contributions to his community. In 1987, he established the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation and funded millions of dollars in grants to various non-profit programs and organizations.

Among the institutions to which Lewis donated are Howard University and Harvard Law School, which renamed its International Law Center to the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center.

Sadly, Lewis died in 1992 at the age of 50 from brain cancer.

But his foundation still exists and is run by his family. In 2005, his family opened the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, which offers the premier experience and best resource for information and inspiration about the lives of African Americans from the state of Maryland.