Curator and historian of African-American art; first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in art history. Lewis was a student at Dillard University in New Orleans, LA, and began her art career there under the tutelage of African-American sculptor and printmaker, Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012). At one of her instructor's suggestions, Lewis transferred to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, where she earned her B.A. in art history in 1945. Lewis completed her graduate studies at Ohio State University, earning her M.A. degree in 1948. That same year she married Paul G. Lewis and moved to Los Angeles, where she taught at Cal State Long Beach while finishing her doctoral dissertation (1951).
As a practicing artist, she cultivated close relationships with several other African-American artists, including Romare Bearden (1914-1988). Lewis carefully documented her contact with artists through interviews, photographs, and manuscripts, creating a substantial archival resource for other scholars of African-American art. In 1953, she organized the first conference of African-American artists in the United States at Florida A & M University. Lewis moved to State University of New York, Plattsburg, in 1958, where she developed an interest in Asian arts, language, and culture. She traveled to Taiwan on a Fulbright fellowship, and upon her return she became a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Lewis became a significant force in the art scene in Los Angeles over the next two decades, and her influence would spread to the rest of the country. In 1969 she became education coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), an opportunity she pursued because she wanted to create new exhibition opportunities for African-American artists. She fought for the hiring of more African Americans by the museum, but after more than a year of constant conflict, she resigned. Before she left, however, she and other constituents founded a group called the Concerned Citizens for Black Art. They set up guidelines and made recommendations to the museum as to what they thought would be more appropriate educational programming. In order to publish Black Artists on Art (1969), a two-volume collection of black artists' writings, Lewis also founded the first African-American owned art book publishing house, Contemporary Crafts.
As a curator, she organized the first solo exhibition of Betye Saar (b. 1926), and established three galleries in the Los Angeles area, where she also served as one of the founders of the Museum of Afro-American Art. In 1976, she supervised the publication of the scholarly journal, Black Art: An International Quarterly, which became the International Review of African-American Art (IRAAA) in 1984. Lewis became a professor of art history at Scripps College in Claremont, California, in 1970 where she became the first tenured African-American professor at the college. Lewis taught at Scripps until 1984 and now continues to write about, curate, and make art. Lewis was granted the Charles White Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and the UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts in 1995. In 2002, Scripps established the Samella Lewis Scholarship for African-American students based on scholastic achievement, excellence in character, leadership, and responsibility. In 2007, the college launched the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection in her honor and with her assistance. She received the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association in 2021.
- and Begley, Mary. "Artist Keys Work to Black Experience." Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1970;
- interview by Mason, Karen Anne, African American Artists of Los Angeles, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles. Transcript, Charles E. Young Research Library, Department of Special Collections, UCLA. March 1992;
- with Kebede, Alitash, and Solis, Amando. Samella Lewis: More than Sixty Years of Collecting. Hampton, Va.: Hampton University Museum, 2006;
- "Lewis-Clack Exhibit Art at Brockman." Los Angeles Sentinel, May 15, 1969;
- and Wilson, William. "New Volumes Mirror a Feeling of Uneasiness." Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1969; African-American Art and Artists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994;
- The Art of Elizabeth Catlett, Claremont, CA: Hancraft Studios, 1984;
- Black Artists on Art ed. Waddy, Ruth G., Los Angeles: Contemporary Crafts Publishers, 1969-1971;
- and Cándida Smith, Richard, [interviewer] Image and belief : Samella Lewis, Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1999.
- and Julieanna L. Richardson [interviewer]. The HistoryMakers® Video Oral History Interview with Samella Lewis Chicago: The HistoryMakers, 2003-2004;
- The International Review of African-American Art vol. 18, no. 1, 2001;
- [transcript] Samella Lewis. Interviews with Art Historians, 1991-2002. Getty Research Institute, Malibu, CA;
- Samella Lewis, Richmond Times Dispatch, February 1, 2002;
- Keith, Naima J. “Samella Lewis,” Hammer Museum, https://hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/artists/samella-lewis
- Samella S. Lewis Papers, 1930–2010, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta.http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/8zk27