On Nov. 30, 1987, Reginald F. Lewis negotiated the $985 million leveraged buyout of Beatrice International Food with his investment banker Michael Milken. It was the largest offshore transaction in the United States at the time and made Lewis the first-ever African-American billionaire.
Thirty years later in 2017, on the anniversary of the deal’s Dec. 1 closing, the historic event made it into the U.S. Congressional Record.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) placed the event in the Congressional Record to honor Lewis’ work which he said changed the face of the country’s financial industry, opened doors for more African-Americans in the realm of business and personally inspired him.
“I rise in honor of a native son of Baltimore, Maryland, Mr. Reginald F. Lewis,” Cummings said on the House floor. “Mr. Lewis’ accomplishments changed the face of American business forever and opened new doors of opportunity on Wall Street.”
The 1987 deal established TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc., which became the first African-American-owned enterprise to break the billion-dollar mark, grossing $1.8 billion in sales in its first year.
Lewis died from brain cancer in 1993, but his philanthropic efforts continue to inspire young African-Americans.
“[Lewis’] substantial philanthropic gifts have also continued to benefit Baltimore and, indeed, the nation,” Cummings said. “They have young Americans of color to dream bigger, and in Lewis’ own words ‘keep on going, no matter what.’”
Cummings shared a moment with the Lewis family following his remarks, where he tearfully expressed the inspiration of Lewis’ accomplishments on his own life, which began as the son of two sharecroppers and said he wanted Lewis’ legacy to stay alive.
Lewis’ widow Loida Nicolas Lewis said the move to officially recognize her late husband’s accomplishments were intentional.
“Thirty years ago, today, Reginald Lewis hit the front pages of all the newspapers, national and international, as the first African-American billion-dollar deal-maker, and now its on the records and books of Congress,” she said.
Lewis would have celebrated his 75th birthday on Dec. 7, and his mother Carolyn Fugett said the congressional recognition was a “fitting” way to celebrate and that she hopes her son’s story will inspire young people to work hard and make an honest living.
Raised in an East Baltimore neighborhood he once described as “semi-tough,” Lewis began selling The Afro-American newspaper on his own delivery route at the age of 10. In two years, he grew the route from 10 customers to a few hundred and sold it for profit.
He later went on to be the first — and only person, to date — to be admitted to Harvard Law School without applying after he attended a summer program at the school. He also established Wall Street’s first Black-owned law firm, where he focused on corporate law and structuring investments in minority owned businesses in 1970 just two after graduating.
In 1987, Lewis founded a foundation in his own name to carry out his vision and mission for philanthropy to support educational programs for minorities and underprivileged youth, as well as showcase and preserve African-American art and culture.
Shortly before his death, Lewis gave Harvard Law School the largest grant by an individual, up to that time, and later they renamed the law school’s international law center in his honor. The law center is the first major facility at Harvard to be named in honor of an African-American.
The foundation continues its work today. Its grants currently support fellowships that teach minority lawyers to be law professors Reginald F. Lewis College of Business at Virginia State University, where he attended for undergraduate studies.
“Young children need to know about this, that is anything is possible,” said Lewis’ aunt Beverly A. Cooper, who sits on the board of the foundation.
The foundation tries to support young people at all levels of education levels to explore career possibilities, Cooper said.
“He’s not even here, and he’s still making a difference,” she said.