Lena King Lee (July 14, 1906-August 24, 2006)
The self proclaimed "coal miner's daughter" was born in Sumter, Alabama on July 14, 1906 to coal miner and activist father Samella King and mother Lula King. Through the constant support and encouragement from her mother and father, Lena was raised to value education early in her life. As the only African American at her high school in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, Lena overcame tremendous adversity and graduated third out of a class of seventy students. With the aid of her high school principal, she received a scholarship to attend Cheyney College in Pennsylvania, where she earned a teaching certificate in 1927. Although Lena was initially reluctant to teach, she moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1931 and began her career as an educator in the Baltimore City School System. While teaching, Lena continued to pursue her own education and earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Morgan State University and later a master's degree from New York University.
With the encouragement of her husband, Robert Lee, whom she married in 1937, Lena decided to enter law school. Still teaching during the day, Lena took evening classes at the University of Maryland Law School and became, in 1951, the third African American woman to graduate from the school. Lena continued to work in the public school system, rising from a teacher to school principal. She taught in the Baltimore City School System until her retirement in 1964.
The dozens of congratulatory telegrams that she received upon her retirement are a testament to the affect she had on the community and the high regard her fellow citizens and educators had for her. One such telegram from Joseph Tydings anticipated Lee's political career to come. It read "Mrs. Lena King Lee, has made a great contribution to the civic and educational advancement of Baltimore City as well as the State of Maryland. I am happy that her retirement from the educational field does not mean retirement from the fields of government and the law where I am confident that she will continue to make even greater contributions than she has in the past."
Lee's time as a public figure in education allowed her to develop many connections within Baltimore's political community that would prove invaluable as she prepared to campaign for elected office. During that time she was appointed to the Baltimore Housing and Urban Renewal Commission by Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. where she fought for increased quality and affordable housing for the Black community. Later she was appointed to the Maryland Advisory Council for Higher Education by Governor J. Millard Tawes.
Lee also developed a close relationship with the Tydings family especially Eleanor Tydings who wrote to Lee on a number of occasions thanking her for her help campaigning for her husband Millard and later soliciting Lee's opinion on the possibility of her son Joseph running for the United States Senate. Lee's connection with Joesph Tydings blossomed into a larger role during his run for the Senate in 1964 under the banner "4 for '64." Two years later Lena ran for political office herself.
After her retirement from the school system, Lee went into full time legal practice with the law firm of Nicholas & Gosnell and she claimed that her work as a lawyer led naturally into politics. While education provided the opportunity to make political connections in Baltimore, working in the law allowed Lee to develop the practical skills necessary to become an effective policymaker.
Lee's political career as an elected official began in 1966, when she ran for the House of Delegates in Baltimore's 4th Legislative District. Her first hurdle was the primary set for September 13th. Early on, Lee aligned herself with Clarence M. Mitchell III, who was running for the State Senate and whose mother Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first African American woman to graduate with a law degree from the University of Maryland, had been Lee's classmate. In the Democratic primary the Mitchell-Lee team endorsed Congressman Carlton Sickles for Governor. Lee herself fared well for a political newcomer in the primary placing fourth in a race where the top seven would be listed on the ballot in November. Sickles was not as fortunate. George Mahoney won the Democratic Party's nomination and drove the Mitchell and Lee team to transfer their allegiance to Republican Spiro Agnew.
With only seven seats open in the House of Delegates for both Republicans and Democrats, Lee fought to distinguish herself from the field before the general election on November 8th. She found her most active support among the segments of her constituency with whom she was most closely tied: teachers and women. "Lena K. Lee is one of us" read a letter from the group Teachers for Lena K. Lee. The Women's Division at Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Church suggested that being a "gentle lady" and "Christian citizen" were among Lee's best qualifications for office.
Lee's early legislative priorities also point to her desire to support women and children. A list of speaking points from the 1966 campaign mentions several progressive ideas:
1. State supported day nurseries for working mothers in lower economic brackets.
2. Kindergartens as part of the legal educational system
3. Educational TV
4. A vast attack on the deficiencies of the educational system, with a resulting elimination of sub-standard buildings, an up grading of all facilities, an elimination of inequities, rapid advance in the wage scale for teachers, with the expectation that educators themselves will phase out incompetency within their ranks...
5. A revision of the law on child cruelty-broader in scope and more severe in penalty.
Lee's note at the bottom of her speaking points is particularly telling of her intentions as a legislator:
"While interested in all of the needs of our state, my training and long years of service in the Baltimore schools create within me a sensitivity to economic and social changes. I should naturally be alert-and perhaps prejudiced-to education as a public service."
In the general election in November Lee placed high enough to claim a seat in Annapolis. She was one of four African-Americans elected to the House of Delegates from the 4th Legislative District that year. And, just as she had when she retired from the school system, Lee received dozens of congratulatory letters after her victories in the primary and the general election, many from individuals high in the Maryland political establishment, including Louis Goldstein, Senator Daniel Brewster, Congressman Carlton Sickles and Judge Mary Arabian, the first woman to serve on the bench in Baltimore.
Lee's success was more than just good fortune; she was a natural campaigner and community organizer. She was meticulous about maintaining her connections and kept detailed lists of the community organizations in West Baltimore and collected volumes of correspondence with civic and community leaders.
It was with the same determination she devoted to campaigning that Lee approached her legislative duties in Annapolis. During her years as a Delegate, Lee stayed true to her base and served as an advocate for the rights of teachers, children, women and members of the legal profession. She developed a reputation for always speaking her mind and was known as "The Killer" and "The Fearless One" because of her determination and zeal for killing bad bills. In 1970 she founded the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.
Lee is most well known for her 1971 proposed "Marriage-Contractual Renewal Bill," which sought to allow Maryland residents the option to annul or renew marriages every three years. Lee's proposal coincided with several other pieces of legislation around the country concerning marriage and it was one for which she received nationwide attention as a result of appearances on the Merv Griffin Show and the Today Show. Ultimately Lee's marriage contract proposal was unsuccessful but her efforts did contribute to the adoption of no fault divorce in Maryland.
Lee's hard work as a campaigner and policymaker paid off; under the Mitchell Team banner, the citizens of West Baltimore sent Lee to Annapolis four times until health issues required her to leave the legislature in 1982. Lee departed with great sadness but in a gesture telling of her grace she wrote to the House of Delegates in April of that year,
"I am eternally grateful that the people of Maryland provided me with this great experience. The people in the General Assembly, and especially the members of the robust House of Delegates are unequaled. We have done the best at this level of our service to mankind. Not one of us needs to inquire into this. I am pleased beyond compare to say this and to have been a member of a group which has shown me such wonderful cooperation, love and respect."
Lee's activities with private organizations throughout the community continued after leaving public office. Her most active memberships were in the Monumental City Bar Association, the Maryland League of Women's Clubs, the DuBois Circle, the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, and the Herbert M. Frisby Historical Society.
Possessed with a quick wit and a sharp pen, candidates for office regularly sought her input in city political matters. Left without a statewide soapbox on which to stand Lee resorted to using printed media to express her opinion. Her vigorous letter writing continued on behalf of the Madison Park Improvement Association, her fellow citizens and political allies.
During this same period, Lee began to receive recognition for her lifetime of achievement. In 1989 she was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame and received a congratulatory note from her old law school classmate Juanita Jackson Mitchell. In 1995 she was inducted into the National Bar Association's Hall of Fame and in 1996 the Freemasons of Maryland honored her at the 133rd Emancipation Proclamation Day Service. In 2003 she received the University of Maryland School of Law's Trailblazer Award and in 2006 the main Post Office in downtown Baltimore was re-named in her honor.
Despite the honors and accolades she received statewide, Lee's greatest satisfaction came from the connections she made in the community. One story is particularly telling of her impact. In November, 2000 Lee received a letter from Anthony Ward addressed to "Delegate Lee" in which he wrote,
"I don't think you know me. More than sixty years ago, I delivered the Sunday paper to your home. At the time you were living in the 2000 block of McCulloh Street, the home of Mr. & Mrs. Arundal. Your husband was always a very wonderful role model to young people...I was living in the 2100 block of McCulloh Street when I was a paper boy. I have moved from there but I have continued to follow you and your career. You have really been an asset to our community and the city of Baltimore. Keep up the good work."
Lena Lee died on August 24, 2006 just one month past her 100th birthday.