50 Over 50 Project for 2020


Ethel Lewis

Age: 90


"You have to be good to yourself first. Then you have enough to share with other people."

Age: 90
Profession: Teacher/Social Worker/Girl Scout Professional

What is the best thing about being your age?
I don’t have to answer to anyone.

What hardships have you endured that you feel have made you stronger?
Being black from the 1930s until today – I have survived.
Growing up we moved from New York, in the North, to the South. My mother wanted me to know what it was like to live with black people because we had always lived in white neighborhoods. The last years of high school I spent in North Carolina. When we traveled to North Carolina we had to change trains, and in Ohio we were sent to the coal car in the back, the Jim Crow car with all the smoke and fumes. That was the first time I learned I had to ride in the back of the bus.

In Nashville, in the 1940s, we had to go through the "negro" entrance to places. There were two water fountains - one for negro water and one for white water. But I saw only one pipe leading to both fountains. I thought, "Oh hell, why can't I drink from the white faucet?" So I did. I never obeyed the rules. When I went to college in Nashville I would always ride the bus in the front and the driver would have to tell me to get in the back, where the sign said, "for colored people." I would ask the driver, "What color? You're colored too, you have pink cheeks." The drivers would just shake their heads at me. Word got out the New Yorker was in town who didn't obey the rules. I just couldn't live by them. I have always been a rebel. But I managed to graduate college without going to jail.

My mother worked for Martin Luther King Jr. as his secretary. She did the march on Washington. I did the protests and all that. I've done every MLK parade in Santa Cruz since its inception. With all that is happening today, I just think, "Oh shit, it still isn't fixed yet. Here we go again. But, I think the people have heard it, and they have seen it for themselves on video, and maybe this time the people will pay attention and get it right. Maybe this time young people will make a change. I'm looking forward to that. Humanity and compassion always win.

My grandfather was Harriet Tubman's nephew, and family stories have it that she always told him, 'the way to get rid of racial problems is to get rid of the race.' He was an engineer and bought my Irish grandmother out of indentured servitude in Boston. It has been my calling, and responsibility, as Harriet's descendant to be an example. My mother made sure I was the first black kid in my elementary school, the first black woman in the girl scout professionals in LA, the first black person in my housing community 27 years ago, and the first black social worker in the City of Santa Cruz. I've been a lot of firsts.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My children

What's your favorite thing you have checked off your bucket list?
Being 90, healthy, and alive.

What is your most treasured possession?
My good health.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being alone with my dog, listening to music...Jazz, classics, anything else.

What is a trait you are most proud of?
Being able to swallow 16 pills at a time, without gagging.

What is your greatest fear?
No fears.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Shopping on line for gadgets. I am known as grandma gadget.

What do you most value in your friends?
Their honesty.

What advice would you give your younger self?
This to shall pass away. Be good to yourself every single day – then the things people may say to you will roll off your back like water on an oiled duck.

What is your motto or favorite quote?
Be good to yourself.

Additional thoughts...
• Take one day at a time.
• Acknowledge your mistakes and don't waste time on little things you can't change.
• The words "thank you" are magic.
• It’s none of your business what other people think about you, unless they are directly responsible for your well being.
• There is no such thing as men’s and women’s work, it all makes you tired.