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Carolyn Fugett, mother of America's 'first Black billionaire', dead at 97

The head of one of Maryland's most prominent Black families passed away on February 7 in Randallstown.

(Baltimore Community Foundation)

Carolyn E. Fugett, an acclaimed activist and the mother of famed Black Catholic businessman Reginald F. Lewis, died of natural causes earlier this month at Northwest Hospital in Maryland. She was 97 years old.

A resident of Randallstown, she received a funeral Mass at her longtime parish of St. Edward Catholic Church in Baltimore on February 20, before burial at New Cathedral Cemetery.

“While I knew this was coming, the finality of it all still saddens me,” her grandson Russell Fugett posted on social media.

“I love you grandma. Thank you for everything.”

Born in 1925, Fugett was raised in East Baltimore by the late Savilla and Samuel Cooper Sr., and married at an early age to the late Clinton Lewis. She had dropped out of high school to support her family, and would later return to her childhood home after a divorce, with her son Reginald in tow.

She went on to work various jobs in the private and public sector while raising six children, several of whom would gain notoriety they attributed in large part to her influence.

“She had to be an expert in navigating White folks,” Fugett’s granddaughter Christina Lewis Halpern said of her in 2021.

“All her six children ended up integrating schools. I grew up with stories about the clever ways she communicated with white teachers, white bosses, White administrators to stay within her forced role as inferior but to also demand respect.”

Lewis would become one of the richest Black men in the country, and reportedly the first African-American billionaire. His company, TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc., was for a time the largest Black-owned business in America, and the first to be exceed $1B in revenue.

Her son Jean Fugett Jr., born to her union with her second husband Jean Sr., played tight end for multiple teams in the National Football League before becoming a lawyer and businessman like (and with) his half-brother Reginald.

“Carolyn made education a family priority, demanding that her husband and children finish their college education,” reads her obituary. Three of her children would earn Juris Doctor degrees, and another received a doctorate in education.

Following her son Reginald’s death from cancer at the age of 50, Carolyn spearheaded efforts to ensure his name was remembered in the Baltimore community. When the state announced plans for a Black history museum, Fugett worked with officials to select the site. It opened in 2005 as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and and received $5M from his legacy foundation.

A devout Catholic and “confidante for cardinals,” Fugett fused faith and works in her commitment to the local community, working with public officials and bishops alike to press for justice in a rapidly changing city that often fell victim to disrepair and neglect.

She ensured Jean Jr. was one of the first Black students to attend Cardinal Gibbons High School in 1964, reportedly received two papal medals during her life, and was a member of multiple boards for Catholic Charities.

“The Catholic church was important to her because it protected us during those racist years,” her Jean Jr. stold the Baltimore Sun this month.

Fugett herself was more moderate, refusing to equate ignorance with racism, especially as it concerned her children’s experiences with the Church. Even so, when Lewis failed to gain entry into a Catholic high school in the 1950s, his mother perceived things plainly.

“It was rare in his day for a Catholic high school to take a person of color in,” she said in an interview for Lewis’ 1995 autobiography, which was recently made available as an audiobook and is being developed into a movie.

“He had to face rejection at an early age.”

Fugett would go on to advise Lewis throughout his career, including with his philanthropic efforts, which were numerous.

Following Fugett’s passing on February 7, her family requested that—in lieu of flowers—donations be made to the Carolyn E. Fugett Charitable Fund, part of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Checks can also be made out to the foundation and mailed to P.O. Box 37422 Baltimore, MD 21297-3422; note "Carolyn E. Fugett Charitable Fund" in the memo line.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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