William T. Lewis was one of the earliest members of the Chattanooga community. When he died on Sept. 2, 1896, he epitomized the best of this town.
Born in 1810 as the property of Col. Lewis of Winchester, Tenn., William learned the blacksmith trade. He developed and honed his skills to such an extent that even though he was a slave people paid him for his work.
By 1837, Lewis had earned $1,000. With this money, he purchased his wife’s freedom. During this same year, Col. Lewis permitted him to move to Ross’s Landing. Over the next 14 years, he earned an additional $4,100 that he used to redeem himself, his mother, siblings and children.
As a freed slave, Lewis remained in Chattanooga instead of heading north and continued working as a blacksmith. His skills were called upon during the Civil War. In the spring of 1862, Andrew’s raiders stole a train and took it north toward Chattanooga. They destroyed as much track and telegraph lines as possible before their capture. After their capture, the jailers assigned Lewis the task of making the prisoners’ shackles. Even though they were enemies, the humanitarian Lewis provided these prisoners with surplus vegetables from his garden.
From the end of the war until his death, Lewis owned and operated a blacksmith shop in different locations throughout the town. Employing numerous people, Lewis supervised their activities to ensure high-quality work. He demanded excellence and settled for nothing else. Some think he may have monopolized blacksmith business in the area. But he prospered because of his standards and hard work.
His financial success allowed him to own a home at 125 Birch St. in Chattanooga. It also permitted him to send three of his nine children to the North for education.
More important than financial riches, "Uncle Bill," as he became known, had the friendship and respect of individuals from not only the black community but also the white community. Even though his life began in truly humble circumstances, Lewis lived a worthy life. His life demonstrates that integrity, altruism, hard work and a conscious desire to excel lead to a successful life.
David Schmidt is an avid history buff. He and his family moved to Chattanooga several years ago. He has fallen in love with the community and its history. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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