Sandra Wicks Lewis (Col ’72) smiles as she points to a photo in her Suffolk, Virginia home. Standing amidst a soothing backdrop where the James River and Chesapeake Bay come together as one, she adopts a similar tranquility when she speaks.
“You can’t really see me,” she said. “I’m right behind my mother.” She points to another photograph. “There. That’s me.”
A young Lewis in a plaid dress walks up the brick stairs of Venable Elementary School holding her mother’s hand. She looks small in front of towering, white Ionic columns. She stares straight ahead between two doors. Lewis will step through them on September 8, 1959. She is one of 12 African American students in Charlottesville to integrate that day following the aftermath of Massive Resistance.
Lewis is an indelible, if unlikely, figure in Virginia’s transformative history. She has participated in some notable firsts: first class of integrated students in Charlottesville, and one of the first African American women to graduate from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1972.
She remains modest despite accomplishing so much. The way Lewis tells it, she owes her successes to the hard work of her parents and grandparents – those who paved the way for her victories.
And she is eager to give back in their honor. In addition to the longtime support of several efforts across Grounds, she and her husband, Lemuel (Col ’69, Darden ’72), recently established the Lemuel E. and Sandra Wicks Lewis Bicentennial Scholars Fund for the College of Arts & Sciences.
As she sits in a comfortable University of Virginia chair between her beloved piano and artwork, Lewis contemplates why she has such an affinity for scholarships. Her speaking is deliberate now – as if she’s distilled her memories over decades into powerful concentrations of words.
Sandra Wicks Lewis’s father, Robert S. Wicks (1911-2014), standing with fellow hospital employees in front of UVA hospital
Sandra Wicks Lewis’s grandfather, Carter G. Wicks (1879-1950), standing on the Lawn
“My father worked at the University of Virginia Hospital for 40 years. He attended Virginia State College for 3 years, but left to help his family after a fire destroyed their home. He brought that level of education to his job as a pharmacy assistant,” she said.
“He knew how limited he was, how far he could go. But he still loved the University. He loved the football team, and watched every game. When I graduated, the only thing I remember about that day is receiving my degree and going out and seeing my father in tears.”
“I knew what that meant to him. I knew about his father and his grandfather who worked at the University. And here his daughter was graduating.” The legacy continued when Lewis’s daughter, Tanya (Col ’00), followed in her family’s footsteps.
Lewis feels the same warmth and emotion when talking about scholarships – the feeling she had when she saw her father that day when she graduated. A goodness she can’t describe.
Having followed behind her mother at Venable elementary school and then behind her father at UVA, Sandra Lewis leads the way for future generations to achieve their own successes.