On August 4, 1895, John and Blanche Michaux gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. The original name for the child was William Lonnell, but over the years his name changed to Lewis Henry Michaux. Lewis was the most rambunctious and unruly of his nine siblings. In spite of the child’s rebelliousness, he was able to form a close bond to his father. This bond would serve Lewis well over the years.
John Michaux was known as a successful businessman in the Newport News area. He owned and operated a saloon and a store. To secure funds and suppliers for these businesses he often had to have questionable and compromising relationships with whites in the area. Many blacks saw John as an Uncle Tom. John won a level of autonomy in an era few blacks had much power, that outweighed the compromises he made to acquire that freedom.
Blanche Michaux suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, at least that is what she would have been diagnosed with if she lived today. She would often have spells in which she would cry hysterically for hours on end. In 1908, the family had to send her to a mental institution. After leaving the mental hospital, John never treated her the same. John saw her like another child and was often abusive toward her.
To say a tumultuous home life caused Lewis’s rebelliousness would only be partially correct. Lewis began to work outside the law once he realized working as an agricultural laborer would never lead to financial stability. He first took a job picking fruit for $0.20 a day and realized the owners exploited his labor. So he decided to mimic those at the top of the agricultural industry. He began taking livestock and supplies and selling them on the black market. Lewis was caught stealing a bag of peanuts in 1915. The sentence was twenty lashings, but he did not cry out.
Marcus Garvey was profoundly influential in the 1920s. Lewis became a supporter and student of the famed leader that taught:
- Black self-reliance and voluntary separation
- Building black-owned business
- Learning to love yourself before interacting with the greater society.
Lewis and John would talk for hours on Garvey’s methodology. Garvey was one of the few black leaders that had substantial support amount working class black people. Lewis admired Garvey’s ability to relate to the common man.
John died in 1922. Neither Lewis or his brother Solomon had any interest in running the saloon or store. Solomon took his inheritance and put it toward his new Gospel Spreading Church. Lewis went to Philadelphia with $1000 from the store’s register to start a gambling parlor in Philadelphia. Their little brother Norris accompanied Lewis.
The gambling parlor became quite the Philadelphia attraction. Lewis made a mint serving some of Philadelphia’s most prominent citizens. Unfortunately, things turned south in 1925. Norris was accused of cheating in dice and shot. Police arrive on the scene. Norris went to the hospital, but Lewis was arrested. During the arrest, Lewis smarted off to the policeman. The police hit Lewis and broke his glasses. A shard of glass goes through Lewis’s eye. From that day forth Lewis had a glass eye.
Solomon Michaux as a locally famous preacher by this time and was able to pull strings to get Lewis out of jail. Lewis saw that he has a second chance at life and decided to join The Gospel Spreading Church. Solomon found Lewis a wife, Willie Ann, and made him deacon at the Newport News branch. After a few years, Lewis served as business manager at the Philadelphia branch.
The church served as a stabilizing force in Lewis’s life. However, religion couldn’t subdue his rebellious spirit. He read the Bible, but the Bible is just one of many books. Like Garvey, Lewis believed that black people spend too much time worrying about the afterlife. Having stability and wealth in this life should be paramount. After a series of public arguments with various members of the church, Lewis decided to leave. His wife chose the church over her husband. Lewis relocated to New York City.
Like any good brother Solomon never gave up on his little brother. By 1938, Solomon was working on his National Memorial to Negro Progress. Solomon believed Lewis would be a perfect person to recruit people to join the farmers’ co-op connected to the memorial. After one year Lewis convinced no Harlemites to move to the Virginia co-op.
Ever since leaving the church, Lewis became more interested in educating black people. He saw a lack of education as the biggest problem in the black community. Blacks could gain the confidence to be effectual in the world once they could learn from our plethora of experience across the globe. Garvey’s perspective on self-actualization primarily inspired him to start his bookstore. Luckily, the old office for the National Memorial was on prime real estate, right across the street from the Hotel Theresa.
Just like any other businessman, Lewis needed capital. He first went to his brother that had a fruitful ministry. Solomon’s wife would not allow him to give Lewis the $500 he needed to start the store. Instead, Solomon quietly paid the rent on the property at 2107 Seventh Ave (A.C. Powell Blvd) until his brother could take over. Lewis then went to a banker. The banker did not believe black people read enough to patron a bookstore. Lewis didn’t give up and contacted one of his brother’s business associates Major Richard Wright. The major gave him the $500 in 1939.
From starting with a pushcart in 1939, Michaux has a fully stocked bookstore by 1946. What is unique about his bookstore is if someone had no money they can read in a back room. The store became a hangout for Harlem intellectuals. Everyone from Langston Hughes to Nikki Giovanni had book signings there. Lewis would go out on his pushcart every day with his rhyming slogans to drum up business.
One of the people that enjoy his catchy slogans is a woman named Bettie Logan. She was around twenty years younger than Lewis, but they hit it off as soon as they started dating in 1952. In 1955, they married and had a child Lewis Michaux Jr.
Malcolm X met Lewis back in the 1940s when Malcolm was “Detroit Red.” Malcolm went to jail and emerged as a Nation of Islam minister. He was given charge of Muslim Mosque No 7 in Harlem. When Lewis saw him again in 1958, he could not believe his eyes.
The Nation of Islam was proposing a similar plan for Black America as Marcus Garvey. The way Malcolm presented it was more charismatic than his predecessor. Youth gravitated to him like no other black leader before. Malcolm was a permanent fixture in the National Memorial African Bookstore. When he broke from the nation of Islam Lewis gave him a donation to start Muslim Mosque Inc.
In 1968, the state of New York decided to buy the block that hosts the bookstore. Governor Rockefeller himself made sure the store stayed open by moving it a few blocks to 101 West 125th St. It became tough to keep the store going in a new location. To add to the trouble, doctors diagnosed Lewis with throat cancer in 1973. His wife runs the store in hopes that Lewis would recover soon. The state then decided to build another government building at the store’s new location. Lewis has no friends in the state house at this time, and the store closed in 1975. Lewis passed in 1976.
No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel by Vaunda Michaux Nelson 2004