Referred to as “The Jackie Robinson of Wall Street” by Forbes magazine in a 2021 feature article, the late Reginald Francis Lewis earned the distinction as the first homegrown African American Baltimore City entrepreneur to build a billion-dollar corporate enterprise in 1987 with the leveraged buyout of Beatrice International Foods, LLC.

Since Lewis died in 1993 from a cerebral hemorrhage associated with a brain tumor, many younger Baltimoreans may not be aware of his personal roots and legacy, mainly associating him with the museum on Pratt Street that bears his name. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum, which opened in 2005, was endowed with a $5 million grant from the Lewis’ family foundation and is the largest African American museum in Maryland.

A neighborhood he described as “semi-tough,” Lewis spent his early years growing up on Dallas Street in East Baltimore, less than one mile from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. His family would later move to the 2800 block of Mosher Street in the greater Rosemont community of West Baltimore near Poplar Grove Street. 

Lewis has attributed his determined work ethic and drive for success to his family upbringing. His family’s mantra was “be the best that you can be.” One of six siblings, his mother, Carolyn, is credited with imposing disciplined behavior and ground rules that Lewis followed his entire life. Carolyn demanded the attainment of education as a family priority. 

Lewis’ maternal grandmother, Sue Cooper, taught him the importance of saving money. As the story goes, she cut and peeled the bottoms of tin cans and nailed them to a closet floor to secure his savings, a critical lesson in personal wealth-building Lewis would not forget.

Reginald Lewis demonstrated the values of hard work and determination his family insisted upon at very early age. His first documented successful business venture was at the age of ten when he established a route to deliver Afro American newspapers. Growing his business from ten customers to over a hundred within two years, Reginald eventually sold his route for a profit. During high school, Lewis worked nights and weekends at a country club to purchase his own clothes and buy a car.

The values instilled in young Reginald Lewis prioritizing education and hard work were exemplified by his performance at Dunbar High School.  Besides maintaining academic honors status as a student, Lewis also excelled as an athlete. He quarterbacked the football team, was a shortstop for the varsity baseball team, and played forward on the basketball team while leading as team captain of all three. Lewis was voted vice president of his senior class.

His combined athletic and academic prowess earned Reginald Lewis a football scholarship to Virginia State University. A knee injury sidelined Lewis’ football career and he refocused his full attention to scholarship, which upon graduation in 1965, earned him the opportunity to attend a summer school program at Harvard Law School funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. 

The program organizers were so impressed with Lewis that he was offered admission to Harvard Law without applying, the first such arrangement extended to a student in the school’s nearly 150-year history. Lewis received an honors grade on his senior thesis topic, “Mergers and Acquisitions,” which would be the leveraging technique he employed nearly 20 years later to acquire Beatrice International Foods.

After graduating Harvard in 1968, Lewis was recruited to practice corporate law with a prestigious New York law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.  By 1970, he, and several associates established Wall Street’s first African American law firm, Lewis and Clarkson, specializing in business law and structuring investments for minority-owned corporations. During this period, Reginald Lewis was also counsel to the New York-based Commission for Racial Justice where he represented The Wilmington Ten, where he successfully forced the state of North Carolina to pay interest on the Wilmington Ten jail bond.

In 1983, Lewis’ desire to “do the deals myself” led him to form the TLC Group, L.P. The firm’s first successful venture was a S22.5 million dollar leveraged buyout of McCall Pattern Company. Within two years he sold the company for $65 million, earning a 90 to 1 return on his original investment. Four years later, 1987, Reginald Lewis would close his history-making signature business deal when he purchased Beatrice Foods in a leveraged buyout for $985 million dollars. 

Within a year Beatrice Foods was earning over $1.5 billion in annual sales putting the company on the Forbes 500 list of American corporations and giving Baltimore bragging rights for producing our first billion-dollar Black businessman.

Regi Taylor
Click Here to See More posts by this Author