Lee, J. Kenneth

views updated

J. Kenneth Lee

Lawyer, civil rights activist

J. Kenneth Lee helped to chart the course of civil rights in the United States, particularly in the state of North Carolina. One of the first two blacks admitted to the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill's School of Law, he helped to open doors for others who followed him into the law profession in that state. He was legal counsel for over seventeen hundred civil rights lawsuits, including suits to integrate public elementary and secondary schools in North Carolina, and he defended students who began the sit-in movement in Greensboro. In addition to his civil rights activities, he was a businessman who founded or helped to establish shopping centers, a nursing facility, rental and commercial property enterprises, and the state's first federally chartered savings and loan association. His efforts made it possible for blacks in Greensboro to secure enough money to build their own homes and establish businesses.

The thirteenth of fourteen children, John Kenneth Lee was born in Charlotte, North Carolina on November 1, 1923, to Henry Franklin Lee, a Church of God minister, and Sara Bell Lowdner Lee. The family was poor and lived on the $11 his father earned each week. When young Lee was six years old, the family moved to Hamlet, a small town in Richmond County, located near the South Carolina state line. Feeding the sizeable family was a struggle; sometimes young Lee watched his mother limit herself to tiny food portions so that there would be enough to go around. His father was determined that his children would be self-sufficient. For this to occur, his sons would learn to use their minds as well as their hands. To ensure that his daughters would not have to work in the kitchen for anyone, he saw that they became educated.

J. Kenneth Lee graduated from a small school with four grades that met in a Baptist church in Hamlet. There was no library to serve the students. As class valedictorian of Capital Highway High School in Hamlet in 1941, he had no difficulty being accepted as an electrical engineering student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) College, located in Greensboro. As poor as his family was, his father managed to save $33 for Lee's first semester expenses. Lee had never lived in a place with running water and electricity until he moved into a residence hall at A&T. Nor had he been in a laboratory until his chemistry professor asked him to retrieve a Bunsen burner for him.

He attended college year round, but World War II interrupted Lee's undergraduate education when he was six weeks from graduation. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and, while in training, married Nancy Young, a senior at nearby Bennett College for Women. Having grown up in a racially segregated society, Lee experienced segregation again in the navy. He went to the Pacific and served as a second mate electrician on the USS Dade, an attack transport vessel that had separate sleeping and dining facilities for the sailors. He was honorably discharged in 1946, returned to A&T, and received a B.S. in electrical engineering in that same year.

Lee continued to feel the effects of racial segregation, this time in employment. The South of the 1940s was not ready for a black engineer. Although engineering firms ran full-page advertisements for electrical engineers, black applicants were denied an opportunity for interview. Lee could find no engineering position in the local area and would not consider offers for employment that he received from around the country. He joined the faculty at A&T as professor of engineering but could not avoid the obvious restraints that a racially segregated community imposed. "Black people were doing all kinds of crazy things to exist," he told the Greensboro News & Record. At this time, blacks sat at the back of the bus, used the back door of restaurants if they were served at all, and those with college or graduate degrees were relegated to lesser jobs than their qualifications prepared them. Lee found conditions "hell certified by law," he said. "We knew that if you stayed on your side of the fence you could avoid the nastiness of segregation … but who wanted to live that way." He saw the legal system as a path toward a solution, and he considered becoming a lawyer.


Born in Charlotte, North Carolina on November 1
Moves to Hamlet, North Carolina
Joins the U. S. Navy
Receives B.S. from North Carolina A&T College
Enrolls in law school at North Carolina College; joins in suit to desegregate law school at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill
Enrolls in UNC's law school
Files successful suit to integrate Gillespie Park elementary school
Opens American Federal Savings and Loan Association
Represents over 1,700 civil rights cases in North Carolina, including sit-in case in Greensboro
Becomes first black member of North Carolina's banking commission
Becomes first black inducted into Greensboro Business Leaders Hall of Fame

In North Carolina blacks who sought a law degree had only one option—North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham. Although the NAACP had attempted to integrate the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the case was long and slow to weave its way through the courts. In 1949, he enrolled in the program at North Carolina College but signed on as a plaintiff in the NAACP's case against Chapel Hill. Floyd McKissick and several other blacks filed the suit but graduated from law school, which meant that no other plaintiffs were left. Lee intervened as a plaintiff in 1948–49. The case was heard in 1950, with Thurgood Marshall, later U.S. Supreme Court justice, as chief counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund (LDF). The blue-ribbon legal team of twenty-five or thirty lawyers also included Howard University's dean of the law school, Jack Greenberg of the LDF, and Constance Baker Motley (later a federal appeals court judge). The judge ruled against them and added, "I know ya'll should be admitted to the UNC law school, but someone other than me will have to sign it," Lee told the News & Record. "It was the times," Lee said. On appeal, the court sided with the plaintiffs and the U.S. Supreme Court would not hear the case. Lee said in an interview for the Greensboro Public Library that "this was the initial integration of the law schools in the South." The case attracted national coverage. It also brought harassing statements from prominent white citizens from Greensboro who wrote to the plaintiffs as well as to the local press. After the case was settled, several members of the school's board of trustees resigned in protest. Eighteen months passed before desegregation took place.

Integrates Law School

In June 1950, Lee and Harvey E. Beech of Kinston, North Carolina, entered UNC and as a contingent of law enforcement officers escorted them into the dining hall, "everybody stopped, forks in mid-air," Lee said in his interview with Eugene E. Pfaff Jr. Their escorts continued for several months. Soon they moved about with little attention, but continued to face racism. At the football games, they were given tickets for the "colored" section behind the goal posts but went back to court and won the right to sit in the general student section. Chancellor Carmichael sent the tickets to them but cautioned, "I hope that you have sense enough not to use them." He said that the university would not be responsible if they were hit with a rock or if a riot occurred. Racism also worked itself into the law school courses at UNC. In one of Lee's classes, students sat in alphabetical order and were addressed by the professor as "mister," but the professor never addressed Lee, simply pointing to recognize him. "It hurt every time," said Lee. Lee passed the bar examination before his graduation in summer 1952 and was licensed in September; he deliberately missed the ceremony to work in Greensboro.

In 1953, Lee saw the peculiar way the state's legal system worked for blacks. He served as attorney for a black man in Alamance County who was accused of "reckless eyeballing" a white woman who walked by a field where the man was working. The woman and the worker did not speak to each other. When the case was heard, the judge, dressed in bibbed overalls and working without legal training, disregarded Lee's contention that there was "no such thing as reckless eyeballing" and sentenced him to two years. The case was reversed on appeal. As Lee handled many other civil rights cases, the road was always rough.

The court room was often a hostile environment for Lee, one filled with total lack of respect for him as a black lawyer. He recalled in the News & Record that on many occasions when he argued a case, jurors would look out the window. During his first jury case, involving five black men charged with killing a white sheriff's deputy in Moore County, the judge and other attorneys ignored a white spectator who had a double-barreled shotgun in easy view. Although the men had committed the crime and Lee wanted to spare them the death penalty, Lee argued that their arraignment was improper. In the end, the man who actually pulled the trigger was sentenced to life in prison, and Lee was on his way to becoming a successful lawyer.

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a time of numerous civil rights cases in North Carolina and elsewhere. Whether a lawyer was white or black, anyone who advocated the rights of minorities was in danger. Lee became assistant legal counsel for the state NAACP; the other thirty to forty black lawyers in the state would not accept such a post. Lee became local counsel for the first suits to dismantle racial segregation in the state's public elementary and secondary schools. With his steady and compelling voice, he successfully represented five black children who, in 1957, sued to enter all-white Gillespie Park elementary school in Greensboro. As result, Josephine Boyd won admission to Greensboro Senior High School and the five black children were the state's first black students to attend previously all-white schools.

Defends Students of the Sit-In Movement

Beginning in 1960, Lee represented most of the seventeen hundred civil disobedience cases in the state. The movement began with the sit-ins at Woolworth's store in Greensboro, now the site of the International Civil Rights Museum; it was the first such civil disobedience to receive widespread notice at that time. Lee's son, Michael, was among those arrested. Lee's legal work with these cases was always pro bono. NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Thurgood Marshall reminded him that the fund spent $500,000 to enable Lee to integrate UNC's law school; therefore, what he did was simply payback. In time, the integration suits that Lee argued expanded to include swimming pools, golf courses, and other public venues.

Cross-burnings and fires disturbed Lee's family, who wondered if Lee would be harmed while out at night. The family also suffered from telephone calls claiming that Lee had been shot or was staked and unable to free himself. As Lee endured, he also saw contradictions in race relations. He had a strange relationship with Clyde "Hammer" Webster, the Grand Klud in charge of enforcement and security for the Ku Klux Klan. Webster, a carpenter, displayed KKK banners as he marched when Gillespie Park School was integrated and threw bottles though the glass in Lee's office windows. After Webster was convicted of vandalism and served a jail sentence, he came to Lee's office and announced that he had been fired from his job as chief carpenter for the firm hired to build Lee's new home. Lee hired Webster, who claimed to be a fine carpenter and one who would save Lee money. According to Lee in the News & Record article, Webster said "You and me ain't gonna never agree on race." When Webster's case was appealed and Lee was subpoenaed to talk about their time together, Webster's sentence was suspended. Outside the court room, Webster, surrounded by his KKK members, expended his hand to Lee and assured him that if "anybody in this town ever messes with you, all you got to do is call us." This was, in Lee's view, an "unholy alliance," but clearly it was meaningful for the telephone calls and threats ceased. Webster continued to picket Gillespie School the next fall.

Lee was partner in the Lee, High, Taylor, Dansby, and Stanback law firm. He decided to put to test his business acumen beyond the legal profession. In the 1940s he opened a theater in Salisbury, North Carolina, to give blacks a place to attend concerts by black performers; they had been denied access to the performances in Greensboro. In 1947, Lee opened a radio and electronics trade school in nearby Winston-Salem to prepare black veterans who wanted an education through the G.I. Bill. Successful in business, he was able to support his family well and to build homes in Greensboro, on a golf course in Pinehurst, and on the oceanfront in the Caribbean. With the help of his wife, Nancy, he maintained his businesses while in law school.

Later Lee tried to borrow $20,000 to build a $55,000 home in one of Greensboro's upscale black neighborhoods and was refused on the grounds that banks would lend no more than $13,000 to blacks. He researched mortgage loans granted in the city and found that only one bank had made a $13,500 loan to a black person. Immediately he set out to charter a savings and loan association to serve the needs of his race. After considerable planning, in 1959 he opened American Federal Savings and Loan Association, the state's first black, federally chartered savings and loan association. Now home-building opportunities for blacks boomed, and blacks could build sizeable homes if they wished. They used their homes as collateral on loans and established businesses of their own.

Through Lee's ingenuity, in 1960 President Richard Nixon persuaded the chair of the A&P grocery chain to anchor the Cumberland shopping center that Lee was developing near his alma mater, A&T College. This may have been the first time the chain was anchored in such a black business enterprise in the South. In addition, Lee helped to develop in Greensboro the Lincoln Grove Shopping Center and founded the Carolina Nursing Center. The nursing facility was the largest black-owned nursing home in the state. He also helped to build the North Carolina Mutual Building in Greensboro. In 1973, he became the first black to serve on North Carolina's banking commission. Through his efforts, the state issued a $2.2 billion tax exempt bond that financed more than 55,000 new homes for low-to-moderate-income families. In honor of his mother, who died when he was a college freshman, Lee helped to build the Sarah Lee Fitness Center at the Hayes-Taylor YMCA located on the corner of A&T's campus. The Dudley-Lee Complex, a modern office complex facility in the vicinity of A&T, honors his son Michael as well as the founders of Dudley Products, a thriving cosmetics and hair care products business based in Kernersville.

A Republican, in the early 1950s Lee made a successful bid in the primary election for city council but withdrew when another black and a local doctor, William Hampton, also ran. He felt Greensboro was not ready for two blacks on its council.

Lee was honored in 1985 when he became the first black inducted into the Greensboro Business Leaders Hall of Fame. He has received numerous other recognitions, as attested to by the plaques that once lined his office walls: one honoring him as a founding member of the Southeastern Lawyers' Association (for blacks in the legal profession), and others honoring his influential work in law, civil rights, business, and community.

Among the organizations in which he held office or had an association are the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency (vice-chair); Southeastern Lawyers' Association (founding member); A&T Alumni Association (founding member); and North Carolina Banking Commission (board member).

In later years, Lee's personal life began to suffer; his wife, Nancy Young Lee, who was an elementary school teacher in Greensboro, was for several years confined to a highly skilled nursing home until she died in July 2005. The stroke that Lee suffered on September 11, 2001 made him unable to care for his wife. Their son Michael, an attorney, died in 1995. Lee's granddaughter, Michele Bonds, carried on the legal legacy. Lee continues some involvement in legal matters. He likes to recall the events that shaped the direction that civil rights took in North Carolina and in the nation, and he wants people to remember that there was a time when there was no recourse for blacks in the eyes of the law. He was never deterred by the legal system that worked against him. To survive, however, he turned to real estate ventures and banking. He also worked to bring about social change—not by demonstrating hostility and anger but by quiet resolve and deliberate moves that resulted in his having a place in history as a civil rights legend.



"Kenneth Lee: Dismantling the Walls of Prejudice." [Greensboro] News & Record, 24 March 2002.


Humphrey, Lillian L., and Winona L. Fletcher. "Offshoot: The H. F. Lee Family Book." www.offshoots-hfleefamilybook.info/menu.htm (3 September 2005).


Lee, J. Kenneth. Interview with Eugene E. Pfaff Jr. Oral History Collection, Greensboro (N.C.) Public Library.

――――――. Interview with Helena Carney Lambeth, January 1, 2004.

――――――. Interview with Jessie Carney Smith, August 5, 2005.


J. Kenneth Lee donated his papers to the International Civil Rights Museum to be housed in Greensboro when completed. The Southern Historical Collection, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contain papers related to Lee's lawsuit to attend the university's law school; they include copies of court papers, photographs of Lee and Harvey Beech registering and attending class, and news clippings describing the court battle and the university's reactions. A portrait of Lee and his four classmates hangs in the law school at the university.

                                    Jessie Carney Smith