At Witt’s End: Celebrating Juneteenth with Bertha Lewis and Friends

Bertha Lewis at the Juneteenth and Black Institute Gala. Photo by Shaun Walsh
Stephen Witt

When Bertha Lewis personally called me to attend the 12th Anniversary Black Institute and Black Leadership Action Coalition and Juneteenth Gala this past Saturday, I couldn’t say no. 

The event was held at the Black-owned Crow Hill, 746 Nostrand Avenue [co-named James E. Davis Avenue], a new Black-owned three-level performance and education space in Crown Heights, a Brtooklyn neighborhood once known as Crow Hill because the area  – like nearby Weeksville – has long been known as a free Black stronghold in the city.

The gala commemorated the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans while celebrating and paying tribute to leaders who have dedicated their careers to improving Black communities and other communities of color. 

Among the honorees were Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson; Tina Byles-Williams, CEO, CIO + Founder of Xponance; Chaplin Ingrid P. Lewis-Martin, Chief Advisor to Mayor Eric Adams; and Laura Kavanagh, Acting FDNY Commissioner. 

While all the honorees have made and continue to make significant contributions to Black culture and life as well as the city-at-large, it feels fitting to single out Lewis on this year’s Juneteenth.

Much like Rev. Al Sharpton, Lewis is not the kind of public figure with which you always agree, but there are few fiercer advocates in Brooklyn, New York City and the nation when it comes to Black America past, present and future. 

I first met Bertha when she was the CEO and chief organizer of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a loosely affiliated group of inner city nonprofits in over 110 cities across the country and a membership of 400,000 people. She was also a founding co-chair of the New York Working Families Party.

This people power and organizing skill alone made Lewis’ clout in the Democratic Party sky high. She became a trusted friend to Democratic presidents, governors, mayors and other top elected officials. However, this was brought down following a 2009 controversy when Republican operatives secretly recorded, selectively edited and released videos of interactions with low-level ACORN personnel in several of their offices. While no criminal charges were ever leveled at the nonprofit, its funding dried up and it filed for bankruptcy a year later and disbanded.

Lewis, though, didn’t miss a beat in her drive to help and advocate for her people. In 2010 she founded and remains the president of the Black Institute, an ‘action tank’ whose mission is ‘to shape intellectual discourse and dialogue and impact public policy uniquely from a Black perspective (a perspective which includes all people of color in the United States and throughout the Diaspora).’ 

Lewis remains a valuable source to journalists and politicians, and I am blessed to count her as a personal friend. In part, I suppose, this is because we both have taken are lickins’ but keep on clickin’. 

So Bertha, this Juneteenth 2022 column is for you with love, and may you celebrate many, many more!