The Legacy of Agency54
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The Legacy of Agency54

  |   Culture

Long before The University of Alabama let the world know that Alabama was a place where legends were made, a legend was indeed in the making in Northport, Al. Ascending from humble beginnings in the small town, Dr.Jessie Lewis astutely lives by the motto, “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” His steadfast work ethic, combined with a little bit of luck, during a time when racial disparities were at an all time high, has ensured Dr.Lewis’s success in business as well as entrepreneurship. Over the last 50 years, he has racked up a myriad of titles including College Graduate,World War 11 Veteran, Author, Newspaper Publisher and Advertising Executive. 


After receiving his early education under a school system that did little to stop the dehumanization of institutional racism, Jessie dropped out of high school and made the decision to join the Army so that he could help support his grandmother and the rest of his family. Upon leaving the Army, Lewis finished high school and enrolled at Miles College, where he was introduced to the world of marketing and advertising. At the time, the marketing world was non-existent in the African American community. He went on to earn a Bachelor degree from Miles college, a Masters from Troy State University and a Doctorate from Atlanta University. 


In 1954 Lewis opened one of the first African American owned advertising agencies in the US, aptly named Jessie J Lewis and Associates Advertising Agency, later renamed Agency 54. Lewis states, “I did the first ad with the Coca-Cola Company involving a Black person, the first one in the history of Cola-Cola. … It was on national TV, radio. … In that job, I learned a lot and gained a deep passion for the marketing industry. My life took a turn toward this path, and the rest has made me who I am today…I was the first Black person the Coca-Cola Company ever hired to represent them.”


He also states, “I read an article that said the greatest question you can ask yourself is, ‘Why were you born?’ My greatest answer to this question is, ‘God has put me here to help take my Black people to another level.’”


In 1963, Lewis embarked on another venture to capture the African American voice by starting a weekly newspaper, The Birmingham Times. By 1975 he was tearing down racially exclusive doors by serving under and maintaining a friendship with the segregationist George Wallace as the first African American cabinet member in the state of Alabama.


In the early days, Lewis admits that his ideas about success might have been skewed. He writes in his book “One Man’s Opinion: Together We Can Do This,” “When I started in business, my goal was to make a million dollars. But this is not how you measure success…“I am fairly convinced that when Black people are born, they are born at a disadvantage..I believe everyone should have every opportunity to share in the American Dream.”


Today, at the incredible age of 99, Dr. Jessie Lewis is a man of few regrets. His belief that God put him on this earth to help African Americans is shown in his dedication to uplifting his community, combatting diversity and providing powerful outlets to represent the African American voice and experience in a profound way.


In 2018, Dr. Jesse Lewis was honored by the Museum of Public Relations in New York, inducted into the Birmingham Business Hall of Fame in 2019, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Vulcan Park Foundation in 2022 and 2023 was inducted into NABJ Hall of Fame. Dr. Lewis continues to leave his mark on the world and his legacy will forever be embedded throughout the city of Birmingham.