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.

His face lights up with pride when the subject turns to Lincoln students. He recites the achievements of several students who graduated last May. "We have plenty of those," he says. "Our students haven't become discouraged [by bad press]."

Nobody loves their schoolchildren more than Dr. Napoleon Lewis, and the feeling is mutual.

Najja Hayes, for instance, credits Lewis with helping him focus on his future. A self-described former class clown, Hayes would sometimes get sent to the principal's office. After a while, Lewis began to recognize him and learned his name; Hayes had nowhere to hide. And the day report cards came out, Lewis demanded to see Hayes'. If Lewis caught Hayes walking out of school at the end of the day without any books, he sent him back to retrieve them. Lewis would call Hayes out over the intercom if he stepped out of line.

Hayes says he began to mature--partly to appease Lewis, and partly to keep up with classmates who had already bought into the principal's dream.

When he graduated this May, Hayes had received a $50,000 scholarship to attend Florida A&M University, where he plans to study mass communication. "If it wasn't for Dr. Lewis," Hayes says, "I wouldn't be going to Florida A&M."

Students respect Lewis, Hayes adds, because they trust him. "Dr. Lewis was strict on us, and we knew that," he says. "But we saw that it was because he cared about us, and not because he had to be there."

Even so, Lewis' critics say his behavior has become increasingly arbitrary. In April, Lewis berated a parent at an assembly for bringing balloons to it, several teachers say. The balloons blocked the view of the people sitting behind the parent. How thoughtless could the parent be? Lewis asked.

The parent abruptly stood up, cursed Lewis, and walked out the door. Others followed, and Lewis responded by canceling the whole assembly, which had already begun. The next day, he scheduled another assembly so that he could apologize to parents.

"He means well," says Pamoja, the former journalism teacher who still works at Lincoln. "He just doesn't know how to talk to people. If Dr. Lewis was white, I would have been to the board [to file a complaint] a long time ago."

The consequence of Lewis' outbursts is a highly demoralized staff. "I have had students say, 'How can you work here? I wouldn't want my mother to work under these circumstances,'" Pamoja says. "If you are not getting respect from the top person, then it's no wonder you are not getting respect from the students."

Teachers who voice their opinions are usually not well thought of, Pamoja says. "It doesn't seem like we have had a climate where we can come out and speak up."

Not every teacher took Lewis' diatribes personally. Sally Marshall, a white teacher who taught biology at Lincoln during the 1991-'92 school year, says Lewis reminded her of the CEOs she had worked with in the corporate world. "He would have made an excellent CEO for some corporation," she says. "With CEOs, of course, it won't be a democracy."

Marshall was more forgiving of Lewis' alleged antipathy for whites than other white former colleagues. "He is an old man, and he came from a place [the segregationist South] that I don't know about, but I think I would be kind of ugly coming from so awful a place. How anybody can suffer under that and achieve anything is incredible."

In the last year and a half, however, Lewis lost both of his top administrators at Lincoln. Juanita Wallace is now vice principal of Spence Middle School, and former dean Evelyn Akram just accepted the post of principal at Burleson High School in Burleson.

Wallace, who left the school in spring of 1995, was replaced by Florence Cox, who would not discuss her experiences with Lewis because she says she is preparing to bring a lawsuit against him. She would not elaborate.

Wallace's defection lends credibility to the teacher's complaints, because she was largely considered one of Lewis' closest allies. For her part, Wallace acknowledges that she left Lincoln because she could no longer tolerate Lewis' behavior. "He can be extremely difficult," she says.

The relationship between the two educators unraveled in February 1995 during an assembly to celebrate black history. Everyone had dressed up for the occasion, some male teachers even wearing tuxedos. But for some reason, Lewis took exception to some of the women who wore hats as part of their ensembles. He took to the intercom earlier in the day, and made a general announcement that those women wearing hats must take them off. When some of the women appeared at the assembly with their hats still on, Lewis took the stage and denounced them. They deserved to be fired for their insolence, he said.

Pamoja was one of those women. "He was very irate," she says. "He said, 'You defied me.'"

In front of students, other faculty, and parents, Lewis criticized the women, bringing at least one of them to tears.

Wallace sat stone-faced in the audience. When Lewis finished his speech, he approached the dean. He noticed her sullen expression.

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