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Remembering Abraham Lincoln Lewis: Philanthropist, human rights pioneer and entrepreneur who got his start in Madison

Abraham Lincoln Lewis was born in Madison on March 29, 1865. Although he grew to be a very successful man, Lewis had a difficult start. Lewis was the son of Robert Lewis, a South Carolina blacksmith who was a slave on one of the many plantations in Madison. Both of Lewis' parents struggled throughout their lives and did not know how to read or write, which was a result of a law that made it a crime to teach slaves to read. However, when the slaves were freed, things began to change. The couple named their son Abraham Lincoln in gratitude for the president who set them free; Lincoln never used this name and instead chose to be called A.L. Lewis. Rising above from the hardships, Lewis dedicated his life to overcome and compensate for the segregation imposed on blacks. In 1901, Lewis, along with Reverend E.J. Gregg, E.W. Latson, A.W. Price, Dr. Arthur W. Smith, J.F. Valentine and Reverend J. Melton Waldron, founded Florida's first insurance company, the African American Industrial Benefit Association, later renamed Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Afro-American Life Insurance Company was founded to provide affordable health insurance and death benefits to Florida's black residents. In May of 1901, the great Jacksonville Fire destroyed the first office of the insurance company just two months after it opened. As a result, it moved to the home of Lewis, who served as the treasurer of the company during that time. Lewis became president in 1919 and spread the company throughout Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. In the 1920s, Lewis began providing mortgages for individual homes. After 80 years of serving black southerners, the company closed its doors in 1987. Lewis helped Booker T. Washington in establishing the national Negro Business League. He also started Florida's first black-owned and operated bottling company. Among his achievements with the insurance company, Lewis was a philanthropist and humanitarian, donating to public and private schools across the country to fund the education of the black youth. In 1926, Lewis also founded the Lincoln Golf and Country Club in Jacksonville. Celebrities from around the country came to the club to play and dine. In 1935, Lewis bought an oceanfront property called Amelia Island, which was located in Nassau County; from there, Lewis established American Beach and provided a vacation site for blacks from the 1930s to 1950s. American Beach also included hotels, restaurants and nightclubs in addition to homes. Lewis accomplished much throughout his life and became Florida's first black millionaire and one of the wealthiest men in the south, sharing his wealth with historical black colleges and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lewis was married to his wife, Mary Frances Sammis, from 1865 to 1923, and together they had one son, James Henry Lewis. After Sammis' death in 1923, Lewis remarried in 1925 to a woman named Elzona Nobileo. They remained married until Lewis' death in 1947. If he were living today, Lewis would be proud of all of the changes made within America, as today, segregation is a thing of the past.

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