The Carroll County Human Relations Commission wanted to make sure its 25th anniversary celebration was extra special. That's why John and Jean Lewis were obvious choices when the organization presented its annual Human Relations Award.
"They are pillars of the community," said Dr. Pam Zappardino, co-director of the Ira and Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education, who presented the award to the couple. "They never stop working to make the community a better place."
The Carroll County Human Relations Commission is all about how the county works together, said Virginia Harrison, the chairwoman of the commission. Harrison said the commission does a lot of networking, sponsors educational programs in the community and takes discrimination complaints.
Jean Lewis is president of the Carroll County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. John Lewis is a past president and one of the pioneers of the chapter. The couple has been married for 36 years and together have a blended family that includes six children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
John is a Carroll native and was the first president of the Carroll County Human Relations Commission and Task Force. This group worked to desegregate the county in the mid-1960s.
"Its methods were simple," Jean said. "Using a team, blacks went in first into restaurants and were not served, followed by the whites who were seated and served. They also marched in front of the white movie theater. There was no violence or arrests, and he used what he called 'back-door approach talking' to desegregate the county."
Jean said her husband also spoke before the Maryland General Assembly in support of the public accommodation law and won four equal accommodation lawsuits.
John was also one of the first black presidents of Carroll's Parent Teacher Association and became a member of the Westminster Jaycees in the 1960s, desegregating the all-white social club. He was also president of the county's Housing Ownership Purchase Effort, which worked to make housing more available for low-income black families.
"The award wasn't just for me," John said. "It was for all the people that helped me. I don't do this all alone. It's an award that should be shared with a lot of people — so many have made a contribution."
Besides being NAACP president, Jean spends a lot of time volunteering with Carroll County Public Schools, Zappardino said.
Jean is also working with the Community Media Center on an oral history project called Carroll County: Through the Eyes of the Black Experience. She is a member of the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, the Community Relations Committee and the Minority Family Forum Committee with the Carroll County Board of Education.
"I think, for both of us, we see a need in the community, and we can't sit back and watch. We've just got to get involved," Jean said. "We want a better life for everyone and we want everyone to understand that we're all equal.
"I'm grateful that we were recognized, but I feel like we don't do anything anyone else wouldn't have done."