PLATTSBURGH — There are grill masters pulling their black smokers behind them around town, but Joseph J. Lewis, owner of Deep South BBQ, is a cut above the rest.
The Mississippi native grew up around the good cooking of his grandmother, Maggie Henderson, and his mother Ernestine Lewis.
But for anyone who has savored his competition-quality ribs, chicken pulled pork and brisket, there is a mysterious alchemy going on.
Maybe mixing compounds is in his DNA from his moon-shiner/farmer father, Jesse Thompson, who was supplier of spirits to parties at the governor’s mansion in Mississippi and juke joints where Joe heard the Delta blues from the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Muddy Waters.
Or maybe Joe’s finger-licking cuisine is elevated by his degrees in chemistry.
“There’s a lot of cooking in chemistry,” said the Morrisonville resident.
Joe was born in Flora, Miss, on a plantation, but he and his three older siblings moved to Bolton, Miss., where his maternal grandparents were sharecroppers.
His mother was a maid, and she relocated to Jackson, because she wanted her children to go to better schools.
“When I was living in Flora, we went to a one-room schoolhouse,” Joe said.
“It went through sixth grade or something like that. At that time, the grades were separated by just sections in the room. There were probably anywhere between 70 and 80 kids. Originally we had one teacher. I’ll never forget her name, her name was Mrs. Payne.”
The multi-tasking teacher worked with one group while she had the other grades busy with their studies.
“A lot of times, the kids who were in the 6th and 7th grades would help the younger kids when they weren’t doing anything,” Joe said.
“When we went to Bolton, it was a regular little elementary school, but it was still a segregated school. When I was in elementary school, a lot of those people had never graduated from college. They might have graduated from 8th grade or they might have graduated from 12th grade.”
He attended and graduated from Lenier High School in 1961.
“It’s an integrated school now, but it was in a black neighborhood at the time,” Joe said.
“There was guy named Mr. Harris. We used to nickname him Rat Harris. He had a master’s degree in chemistry. I had an English teacher Mrs. Pittman. She was very influential because she wanted you to read well and write well. There were two things at play there. One is when you would sit down and write, and the other thing was regular speaking. I don’t necessarily use the same grammar in speaking everyday. When I was writing, I was using correct English.”
Principal William F. Buckley encouraged him and others to attend college.
“Quite a few students from Lenier, from the better families, went to college,” Joe said.
“Mr. Harris taught physics and math. He would get in your face. He would grab you by the face and talk to you. If you were messing up, he would throw you out of class. He was a tough guy. I liked him. He was a fair guy.”
Joe’s teachers pushed them to excel and made them cognizant of the dual-education system they were ensnared in.
“We’re getting used and leftover books,” he said.
“They weren’t really totally outdated. We were getting the books that were already used by the white school districts. Mrs. Pittman was very strict. I think she had gone to a historically black school and went and got her master’s somewhere. Mr. Harris and Mrs. Pittman, those were some of my serious role models.”
He enjoyed science and physics.
“When the Russians launched Sputnik, there was talk that we were way behind the Russians in terms of STEM type things,” Joe said.
“You could take early morning classes before school started. I was going to those types classes before school started. Mr. Harris was teaching some of those additional math courses.”
Joe started his undergraduate studies at Alcorn State University in Loriman, Miss.
He attended for two years.
“The reason I transferred was that when I was in my sophomore year at Alcorn, the gentleman named James Meredith was trying to get into the University of Mississippi,” Joe said.
“At that time, integration had been passed but most of the southern states was ignoring it. They were questioning his credentials because he had gone to historically black schools at Jackson State, and then he had gone on to the military.
“ When he wanted to go to Old Miss, there were articles in the paper and people saying he was not qualified.”
Jackson State and Mississippi University were actually accredited by the educational agency.
“I took a look at who was coming on campus to recruit the graduating teachers,” Joe said.
“At that time, teachers were making $2,700-$2,900 a year, black teachers were.”
He noticed recruiters hailed from historically black school districts.
“There were no corporations coming there at that time,” Joe said.
“I took a look to see what the salaries of the teachers’ were. A black brick layer was making more money than the black high-school teachers. So I decided I was going to have to change schools. I felt that my credentials were only worth what the hiring public thought it was worth.”
Even though he had known black students who had gone on to medical school and gone on to Harvard from historically black schools and colleges, he told his mother he had to leave Mississippi.
Joe transferred to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.
At first, he had a lot of sore throats as he got acclimated to a colder clime.
“I had already joined a fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, and there were a lot of Alphas there,” Joe said.
“They kind of took me under their wing, that sort of thing.”
His interests in science was launched in the Delta, but he had other reasons why he gravitated to it.
“With all the irrational ignorance that was going on, I thought I wanted to get into a profession where reason and rationality would be at play,” Joe said.
“I thought that the sciences would be there, but little did I know that people use the science for anything that they wanted to. I loved chemistry and science, but I wanted to get away from just social ignorance”
With a wish to do undergraduate research, he crossed the threshold of D. W. Slocum at Southern Illinois.
A University of Rochester alum, Slocum earned his doctorate at New York University and did a post-doc at Duke University.
“Southern Illinois also offered PhD degrees, and they were pretty rigorous at the time. Your thesis, whether it was a master’s thesis or something, parts of it had to be accepted by a peer-reviewed publication,” Joe said.
“You just couldn’t put no junk out there you know. He accepted me into his group, and I did undergraduate research with him and I published.”
When I decided to get my master’s, he became my major professor. He looked at my thesis work.”
Joe’s published papers include Metalation of Metallocenes” authored by Slocum, T.R. Engelmann, C. Ernst, C.A. Jennings, W. Jones. B. Koonsitsky and P. Shenkin in the Journal of Chemical Education.
Another is “2-Bromo-3(cyclohexyloxy)acrylaldehyde: An Isolable Enol Ether of Bromomalonaldehyde Suitable for Use in the Manufacture of Imidazolecarboxaldehydes” authored with Terrence J. Connolly, Michael W. Disharoon, Vladimir Dragan, Peter Wehrenberg and Ralph Zhao in Organic Process Research and Development, Vol. 14, No. 6, 2010.
His professional memberships include American Chemical Society and the National Organization for the Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.
While at Southern Illinois, Joe met his first wife, an elementary education major.
He became the father of two daughters, Karen and Rae Michelle, and worked at Morton Norwich Products, Inc. as a research chemist.
He was also completing doctorate courses at the University of Delaware, but his then-wife did not want him to embark on a full-time residency because then he couldn’t work and she was tired of being poor.
Though he was interested in teaching, the private sector was more lucrative and he developed a love for doing research.
At 39, he was a divorced father of a tween and a teen.
At Smithkline, he started as an associate medicinal chemist in Animal Health Products in Philadelphia, Pa.
“I was trying to discover compounds for feed efficiency in animals and as growth promoters,” Joe said.
He was promoted to medicinal chemist, organic chemist, senior organic chemist and finally to quality assurance and control manager.
His next job was as senior chemist at Zeneca Pharmaceuticals in Wilmington, Del.
There, he carried out large-scale syntheses of intermediates and drug development candidates as well as designing and improving synthesis of target compounds.
It was a fluid time in pharmaceuticals.
“I had retired,” Joe said.
“A lot of companies merge, and they lay off people. I was not working.”
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This is Part I of a two-part series, “A Mysterious Alchemy: The Secret Life of Grill Master,” which looks at the life of Joseph J. Lewis from his Mississippi childhood to working as a chemist at global pharmaceuticals.