The First

Mel Lewis ’53—the first Black graduate of SCU—reflects on his days as a Bronco.

In the twilight of his life, as he poetically puts it, Melvin Lewis ’53 says he’s grateful to have a remarkably intact trove of memories from which to pull and reminisce about his days as a Bronco.

Growing up in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Lewis was the only Black kid in his class since elementary school, so coming to Santa Clara as one of the University’s first African American students was no great intimidation, “though it could be a little lonely.”

“I knew what I was there for, I came to get an education,” says Lewis, who was encouraged by his high school football coach to come to SCU on a full athletics scholarship and join the ROTC program.

Mel and Ernestine Lewis
Mel Lewis ’53 and his wife, Ernestine, attend an alumni event in 2014 on campus, where he was honored as a veteran and the University’s first Black graduate. / Photo by Charles Berry.

Once, while traveling to an away game in Little Rock, Arkansas, he recalls, “It was a segregated city and they had laws where Blacks couldn’t stay at the same hotel with whites so I had to stay by myself at a separate hotel.” His teammates picked him up to visit a whites-only malt shop. “The whole team circled me at that malt shop and made an order.”

Broncos were like that, he says, “Santa Clara was always at my back.”

After returning home from U.S. Army service in Korea, Lewis couldn’t get a job, so “I called someone I knew in the alumni office and had a job the next day.” Lewis eventually moved back to L.A., traded his football helmet for a tennis racquet, married his beloved wife Ernestine—they celebrated their 61st anniversary this summer—earned his teaching certificate, and coached championship high school tennis teams. Once ranked No. 1 in the seniors USTA tennis division, Lewis was still playing regularly at the age of 89 before the pandemic required him to stay inside.

He especially misses the indoor handball court at his sports club where he’d recite from memory Milton, Keats, Browning and, his personal favorite, Shakespeare. “I shout as loud as I want and nobody could hear me,” he says.

In the 67 years since he became SCU’s first Black graduate, Lewis has regularly contributed to the Santa Clara Fund and Bronco Bench Fund, which support the most needs of undergraduate students and athletes. “I’ve worked myself into a position where I can give here and there,” he says. “Santa Clara gave me the opportunity to have the quality of life I’m enjoying so much now.”

To help SCU further diversify its campus community and recruit, retain, and educate Black students, visit mysantaclara.scu.edu/giving/BlackExcellence.

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