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'She stood very tall'

The Baltimore Sun

Lena K. Lee, an educator and attorney who was one of the first African-American women elected to the Maryland General Assembly, died in her sleep Thursday evening in her home in the 1800 block of Madison Ave., where she had lived since 1940.

She had celebrated her 100th birthday last month.

The daughter of a coal miner, Mrs. Lee taught in the city schools, earned a law degree in her 40s and wasn't elected to state office until she was 60. But her life and devotion to public service were praised yesterday by a number of political and civic activists.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings recalled that he wouldn't be in politics had it not been for Mrs. Lee. He was elected in 1982 to Mrs. Lee's seat in the old 39th District (now the 44th).

"When she was passing the baton in 1982, she said to me, 'I'm getting up in age and I'm looking for someone who is a woman and a lawyer. And even though you're a lawyer but not a female, you'll do,'" he said. "She raised money and campaigned for me. That's how I started in politics."

"Some people come along in life, and they touch you and then move on. Her touch changed my life," Mr. Cummings said. "Lena always said, 'Don't be about celebrity. Be about service.'"

Mrs. Lee was born Lena King in the coal mining community of Sumter County, Ala., where her father, Samuel Sylvester King, was a miners' activist. In addition to being a miner, he worked as a chauffeur and butler to earn extra income for his family.

Mrs. Lee was raised in Alabama, Illinois and Pennsylvania, where her father moved his family while seeking work as a miner. He became prosperous enough to send Mrs. Lee, her sister and her brother to private boarding schools operated by black churches.

She graduated in 1925 from high school in Tarentum, Pa., third out of a class of 70, and was awarded a scholarship to Cheyney Training School for Teachers in Cheyney, Pa., now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.

Mrs. Lee began her teaching career in Annapolis and moved to Baltimore in 1931, where she taught sixth grade in city schools while she continued her education.

She earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Morgan State University in 1939. Because blacks were forbidden at that time from attending graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park, she traveled each weekend to New York City by train, earning a master's degree in 1947 from New York University.

Mrs. Lee later enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law. When she earned her degree from there in 1951, she became the third African-American woman to graduate from the school, after Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Dr. Elaine Carsley Davis.

She was admitted to the Baltimore and Maryland bars in 1952 and continued working as an educator while practicing law. She was principal of Henry H. Garnet Elementary School, at Division and Lanvale streets, from 1947 until she retired in 1964.

As a member of the American Federation of Teachers, she also pushed for teachers' rights.

Mrs. Lee was married for many years to Robert R. Lee, a Baltimore businessman who owned the Biddle Theater and died more than 40 years ago, friends said.

"I was married to a man who felt you had to be very forward about your rights," Mrs. Lee told Crisis magazine in a 1996 interview. "You were made to feel that as an agitator you were above certain activities. He was with me all the way, pushing."

Legislative priorities

When she was 60, Mrs. Lee turned her attention to the House of Delegates and won a seat in the former 4th District. (It later became the 38th, then 39th and is now the 44th.)

"She stood very tall in the House of Delegates and was very active in civil rights and many other good causes throughout her life," the Rev. Marion C. Bascomb, former pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, said yesterday.

In Annapolis, colleagues referred to Mrs. Lee as "The Killer" and "The Fearless One," for her instinctual ferreting out of bad bills.

"I am a legislator who dedicates most of her time to fighting bad law. I'm always telling my colleagues, especially the blacks, that their greatest duty is to smell out the snakes and kill bad laws in committee; if not, then on the floor," she told The Evening Sun in 1976.

"I do not spend even one-tenth of my time getting a piece of legislation through. First, I'm not one of the 'in' crowd. Second, getting one bill through eats up one's vitals. Third, the administration bills take precedent, and are usually the 'biggies' in the interest of the state, although we often find it best to kill some of them," she said.

She added: "No legislator is infallible and when he passes a bad law he should be the first one to work for its repeal."

In 1970, she founded the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, and in the Crisis magazine interview, she said, "There was a need to huddle together. There's still a need and we don't realize it. We think we've made it. I often wonder where we're going."

'Quite a lady'

A diminutive and energetic woman, Mrs. Lee's face was highlighted by large horn-rimmed glasses and a thick head of dark hair.

"She was quite a lady," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides. "For someone who lived to be 100, she could appreciate the tremendous strides that were made on behalf of racial equality during her lifetime. And she was responsible for many of those changes."

He added: "And her many accomplishments were in inverse proportion to her size."

"I was always very impressed by Lena's willingness to spend time with younger folks to share her experiences so they could avoid some of the pitfalls she encountered during her lifetime," Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, said yesterday.

"Her advice was, 'You do things because they're the right things to do, and when you're doing the people's business, it's best to be a leader rather than a follower.' And she did it fearlessly and with certainty and gusto," he said.

In 1972, Mrs. Lee proposed a bill that would have eliminated the Maryland State Board of Censors. For years, it had been presided over by Mary M. Avara, a South Baltimore bail bondswoman, who was once called "America's Mother Superior of Censors."

"The Censor Board is one of the political plums. ... It is purely a political patronage thing," Mrs. Lee told The Evening Sun at the time.

"There is no one person who has the right to say to me that 'you should not see this picture at all.' They have gotten in a darkroom and had a sadistic delight in seeing all the goodies of the picture for themselves and then they tell me I should not see it," she said. The board was eventually abolished in 1981.

Named in her honor

The House of Representatives voted in December to name a post office at 1826 Pennsylvania Ave. in her honor, and Mrs. Lee attended the dedication ceremony in June.

"She had a wonderful sense of humor. She was 99 then and said to the crowd, 'I turned over the reins 25 years too early,'" Mr. Cummings said with a laugh.

Mrs. Lee had served on the City Redevelopment Commission, the Urban Renewal and Housing Commission, the Advisory Council on Higher Education in the State, the board of governors of the Barrett School for Girls, the Women's Committee for Civil Rights and the Provident Hospital board.

"Up until the end of her life, she was in full possession of her faculties and memories. Her voice was as strong as it was during her days in Annapolis," said Larry S. Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor.

"We had a celebration at the central Pratt Library recently, and she stood up without a cane and spoke for 20 minutes without any notes. She was truly a remarkable woman," he said.

Mrs. Lee was a longtime member of Sharp Street United Methodist Church.

At her request, there will be no services or memorials, said Louise Michaux Gonzales, a Baltimore lawyer and Mrs. Lee's property guardian.

Surviving are a nephew, Dr. Ronald King of Owensboro, Ky.; and several step-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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