Lee, John Kenneth
John Kenneth Lee was born on November 1, 1923 in Charlotte, North Carolina.[i] He grew up in Hamlet, NC, graduating the small segregated Capital Highway High School, in 1941.[ii] He then enrolled in the electrical engineering program at North Carolina A&T State University. In 1944, six weeks from his goal of graduating within three years, he was drafted into the Army.[iii] Instead of serving the Army, he enlisted with the Navy. He partially explained his reasons, in a 1995 interview, noting that the Army slept in fox holes while the Navy slept in heated ships and barracks.[iv] After training in Michigan, Chicago, and Hawaii, he served on an attack transport ship in the South Pacific near the end of World War II.[v] While in the Navy, Lee took graduate courses in engineering at the University of Hawaii, Hampton Institute, and other schools close to where he was stationed. He completed his two-year Naval service and immediately returned to A&T, finishing his degree in six weeks[vi]
In his oral history interview, Lee noted that when he graduated from A&T, major companies like Western Electric and Westinghouse were advertising heavily, seeking to employ engineers in North Carolina.[vii] However, he noted, they would not give black applicants an interview for a North Carolina position.[viii] Lee said that he received offers for jobs in California and elsewhere, but he didn’t want to leave home. So, he took a job teaching electrical engineering at A&T. He also opened an electronics shop in Greensboro.[ix] With so many men returning from military service with G.I. education benefits, there were more students than the A&T program could handle. To meet the demand, Lee and some of his colleagues launched Delwatt’s Radio and Electronics, a school to train students in radio, phonograph and electronics repair, operating in Winston Salem, NC.[x] To get Veterans Administration payments for the veterans attending the electronics school, Lee had to follow Veterans Administration guidelines. So, he worked with a lawyer who could handle government contracts. He then considered the idea of going to law school to take contracts courses, himself.[xi]
By 1949 Lee had made the decision to attend law school. The only law school in the state open to African Americans was North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University). In a 1980 interview, Lee described some of the conditions at North Carolina College:
“The library books were all stacked on the floor, they had no–no shelves to put any of them on. And I wasn’t particular about going that–going there, so I got to be one of the plaintiffs in the [law]suit and attended the University of North Carolina.”[xii]
When asked about having worked on their lawsuit with Thurgood Marshall, who by 1967 had become the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Lee noted that the legal team for the lawsuit against UNC numbered 25 or 30 very prominent attorneys, not just Marshall:
“Well, yeah but we had Dean [Erwin] Grisold, who was dean, I believe, at Harvard. We had a team of who’s who of in the legal profession in there. It was–we must of had twenty-five, thirty lawyers, you know, working in the case. Jack Greenberg, who is now a chief counsel–has been for thirty years–for the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] Legal Defense Fund, Martin Martin, Constance Marley, who is chief judge of the Third Circuit Federal Appeals;[xiii] the guy who’s chief judge of the Appeals Court of Washington, D.C. We had a blue-ribbon panel of lawyers.”[xiv]
After winning the suit, Lee began classes at UNC’s law school in June 1951 along with Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, Floyd McKissick, and James Robert Walker. He passed the bar in 1952 before he had graduated law school.[xv] After he graduated, in the summer of 1952, Lee continued his engineering businesses. But by 1953 the need for lawyers to represent African Americans drew him into civil rights cases. In an interview he recalled his first experience in court, representing nine African American men accused of killing a sheriff in Carthage, NC.[xvi] He commented that no lawyer would represent any of the nine men. So, he represented them all.[xvii]
He was one of the few African American lawyers in the state, and found himself covering a wide swath of the region. In addition to representing his own clients, Lee acted as assistant counsel for the NAACP in North Carolina, working with Conrad Pearson, the NAACP’s North Carolina general counsel.[xviii]
By the early 1960’s African American students and citizens of North Carolina who began participating in waves of sit-ins, pickets, and protests needed lawyers to represent them. Lee took up the challenge and shortly had a very full plate. At one point, as participation in civil rights protests grew, he had over 1,700 active sit-in cases simultaneously.[xix] The cases usually were two-fold, the criminal charges against the protesters and the civil actions to desegregate facilities. One case [link to criminal case] Lee litigated over a segregated golf course was archetypical. The city of Greensboro owned a public golf course partially funded by the federal Works Progress Administration and partially built on state Department of Education land. To avoid integrating it, the city officials leased the golf course to a private corporation, Gillespie Park Golf Club, Inc. The corporation barred African Americans from the course. Lee represented a group of African American men who were arrested for defying that ban. Though the state lower court convicted the defendants, Lee won for his clients, on appeal.[xx] In federal court, the African American litigants won the civil suit to desegregate the golf course. The city appealed. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the appellate arguments in the case on June 14, 1957. On June 27, 1957, one day before the court released its official decision [link to decision] in favor of the African American plaintiffs, the golf course buildings were burned to the ground. The headline in one local paper the next day read: “Fire At Golf Club Solves Greensboro Race Problem.”[xxi] As Lee recalled, the golf course did not reopen for 10 years.[xxii]
Civil rights representation did not provide a sustainable living for Lee. Often his clients were poor and the money to pay him was scrapped together in church collection plates and by families mortgaging their property, though for big cases they often received some help from the NAACP.[xxiii] So, Lee practiced law by day and worked at night repairing radios, televisions, and other electronics, and operating a juke box concession business.[xxiv]
During his years of practice, Lee stated, he was harassed by members of the local Klan. He received threats, and his law office was vandalized. He described one incident that was particularly traumatic:
My wife and I went, went somewhere one night–right next door, I believe, to visit a neighbor. And we came back and we had a six year old son–the boy downstairs now practicing law–and he was just, I mean he was just, just totally incoherent, just hollering and screaming and crying. We didn’t know–we finally found out that somebody had called him and had described in terms that only they could describe what they were going to do to his daddy. And we had to take that boy to the hospital and we didn’t know if we were ever going to get him straightened out or not.”[xxv]
Someone shattered the glass window of Lee’s office, repeatedly, after every repair. Eventually, some former clients staked out the office, caught the culprit in the act, and held him for the police. The white supremacist who did it was given a two-year sentence. In an odd twist, the man, a skilled carpenter, appealed to Mr. Lee to allow him to work on the home Mr. Lee was building, promising good work. He would lose his job with the contractor Lee had hired, if Lee did not consent. Lee consented. The man remained true to his word, and they developed an odd friendship. Lee eventually testified on the man’s behalf allowing him to stay out of jail, but according to Lee, the man remained a staunch and open racist for the rest of his life.[xxvi]
Lee also had to deal with racism in the courthouse and among the bar. He recalled dealing with judges who, when conferring in chambers with the attorneys, regularly used the “N word” to refer to the black litigants, apparently oblivious to the light-skinned black attorney in the room.[xxvii] Armed white supremacists would also attend court proceedings of some of cases in which Lee represented black litigants.[xxviii]
When bank after bank refused Lee a home mortgage, one bank officer told him it was because no bank would lend blacks more than $13,500.[xxix] Lee said he decided then to open a bank that would lend to African Americans. He eventually co-founded American Federal, the first federally chartered bank in North Carolina started by African Americans.[xxx] He remained president of that bank until he retired in 1988,[xxxi] and he became the first African American to serve as North Carolina’s State Banking Commissioner.[xxxii] He also later served for eight years as vice-chairman of the board of the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, which focused on providing affordable homes for people with low income.[xxxiii]
Lee practiced law until age 49, when he took a break to recover from hip surgery. [xxxiv] He continued to be involved in numerous business enterprises and in public service. His businesses included investment, real estate development and administration of a nursing home.[xxxv] In addition to his other public service, Lee served for several years as a special hearings officer for the U.S. Department of Justice. During the Vietnam War, Lee’s special hearings officer duties were largely to make decisions on conscientious objector applications. [xxxvi]
[i] Source: The National Archives Southeast Region; Atlanta, GA; Records of the Selective Service System, 1926-1975; Record Group: RG 147; Class: RG147, North Carolina World War II Draft Registration Cards; Box Number: 217, accessed via Ancenstry.com.
[ii] Winona Lee Fletcher & J. Kenneth Lee, NO WAY! MEMORIS OF J. KENNETH LEE, ESQ. (Outskirts Press, Denver) (2008) at 4.
[iii] Eugene Pfaff, Oral history interview with J. Kenneth Lee (1980), Greensboro Voices Collection, Greensboro Public Library Oral History Project, at 2. Hereafter this source is referenced as “Pfaff,” with page references to the interview transcript.
[iv] Interview with J. Kenneth Lee by Ann S. Estridge, Sept 26, 1995 and Oct 26, 1995, interview number J-68, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at 87. Hereafter this source is referenced as “Lee SOHP” with page references to the interview transcript.
[v] Lee SOHP at 88.
[vi] Lee SOHP at 88.
[vii] Lee SOHP at 50; No Way! at 7.
[viii] Pfaff at 2 (Pfaff)
[ix] Lee SOHP at 59.
[x] Lee SOHP at 50; No Way! at 8.
[xi] Lee SOHP at 51.
[xii] Pfaff at 2.
[xiii] This appears to be a reference to Constance Motley Baker, who served as chief judge of the Southern District of New York federal court until her death in 2005.
[xiv] Pfaff at 7.
[xv] No Way! at 18; Lee SOHP at 59.
[xvi] See The Daily Times-News (Burlington, North Carolina), Mon, Mar 16, 1953, p. 1.
[xvii] Pfaff at 15.
[xviii] Pfaff at 31.
[xix] No Way! at 20; Pfaff at 14.
[xx] Pfaff at 19-23.
[xxi] The Robesonian (Lumberton, North Carolina), Thu, Jun 27, 1957, at 1.
[xxii] Pfaff at 22;
[xxiii] Pfaff at 18 & 26
[xxiv] Pfaff at 7.
[xxv] Pfaff at 28.
[xxvi] No Way! at 28-30.
[xxvii] Pfaff at 16 & 23.
[xxviii] No Way! at 20; Pfaff at 16.
[xxix] No Way! at 21.
[xxx] Lee SOHP at 45-48; No Way! at 21-23.
[xxxi] Lee SOHP at 48.
[xxxii] Le SOHP at 129.
[xxxiii] Lee SOHP at 128.
[xxxiv] Lee SOHP at 37.
[xxxv] Lee SOHP at 172 – 175,
[xxxvi] Lee SOHP at 134.
[xxxvii] Lee SOHP at 179.
[xxxviii] Lee SOHP at 37.