The Pride of Napoleon Lewis

A veteran principal brought hope and self-respect to South Dallas' Lincoln High. But even some of his loyal followers say it's time for him to step down.

For months, Lincoln High School's librarian, Helen "Bobbie" Welsh, had struggled to operate a four-person library with the help of a single assistant. The stress had begun to take its toll:She was suffering from debilitating back and neck spasms and bouts of anxiety.

But on February 19, 1996, things got much worse. Welsh was sitting at her desk in the library when Principal Napoleon Lewis' voice came booming over the intercom.

Lewis demanded to know why the school's library was closed. Welsh sat in horrified silence--in the open library. Infamous for his frequent, colorful discourses over the school's public-address system, Lewis threatened to carry his desk from the principal's office and man the library himself.

"I bet ya'll didn't know Dr. Lewis could run a library," Welsh and others say he announced. The black students had important reports to research, he continued--and no one would stop them.

Then, in a cracking baritone voice, he began singing "We Shall Overcome," the spiritual hymn made famous by the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

To Welsh, the impromptu singing was a racist attack against her.
"The library was not closed," she says today, her voice trembling as she recalls her public humiliation. "How would you feel to be publicly denounced and accused as a white person of keeping African-American students from being able to use the library?"

Welsh, who has since taken a medical leave of absence from her job at Lincoln, claims she was mistreated by Lewis because she is white. "A white principal would be fired, news sources would be reporting, and groups would be marching in protest for what he said to me over the intercom if I was black and he was white," she wrote in a letter to Dallas Independent School District psychologist Robert H. Bourdene dated May 28, 1996. (Bourdene would not comment on the case.)

Welsh is one of several current and former educators at Lincoln who complain that they have been treated in an abusive manner by Principal Lewis, who is immensely popular among students and parents and is virtually a legend in South Dallas.

These educators paint a picture of a man whose ideals are noble and worthy, but whose school is in crisis--in part because of the principal's high-handed treatment of teachers and staff.

Yet the problems extend even further. At Lincoln, they say, teachers are subjugated to the whims of underachieving students--and the school has become a place where grades have to look good, whether the students have earned them or not.

While many outstanding Lincoln students have gone on to success, some teachers say the school has degenerated into a mill where students can walk the stage in May even though they hardly ever attended class. The district, they say, is afraid to taint Lewis' or Lincoln's image in any way by addressing faculty members' concerns.

In the course of four weeks, the Dallas Observer interviewed more than 20 current and former faculty and staff members of Lincoln, both black and white. And while Lewis is still highly respected by most of them, several described a deeply demoralized teaching staff.

"There are a number of problems," says Imani Pamoja, a former Lincoln journalism teacher who is black. "There are a lot of teachers who are leaving because of the problems, but it's all kept pretty quiet."

"I see it as a building imploding," says a white teacher who's still at the school and asked not to be identified. "It's chaotic--the kind of chaos that results from inconsistency at the top. And the people that are getting short-changed are the students."

Amid the acrimony, Lewis, 75 and undergoing treatment for cancer, resigned his post in mid-April. But just a week later, the principal withdrew his resignation, saying that the South Dallas community--particularly his beloved students--needed him.

His supporters say that more than 1,000 people signed a petition begging him to serve another year at Lincoln. It was an offer Lewis couldn't refuse; he committed to one more year as principal.

Still, many of his own teachers and administrators think Lewis has outlasted his usefulness to Lincoln. Even some of his biggest supporters have turned against him. His former second-in-command, Dean Juanita Wallace, defected to another DISD school in 1995, complaining about Lewis' behavior, and her replacement, Dean Florence Cox, speaks of suing the principal.

District officials are generally closemouthed about the educators' criticisms of Lewis and are diplomatic about conditions at the inner-city school. "He's a district icon," DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander says of Lewis. "I don't necessarily agree with everything he does over there, but he definitely has his own persona."

Lewis, for his part, abruptly dismisses the complaints. "All that stuff those people are complaining about, that's their problem," he told the Observer in a brief interview. "As long as my kids are doing well, I couldn't care less what they say."

There is, perhaps, no Dallas educator with an image as appealing as that of Dr. Napoleon Lewis: the imposing black disciplinarian who strides into the inner-city blackboard jungle and tames it with an iron will. A towering, gruff Texas farm boy, Lewis had already retired from Washington, D.C.'s school system when he joined DISD in the late 1970s.

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