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For those who are new here the theme of this blog is to record the many anecdotal back stories I, the author, encountered while researching the book about Norvel Lee.  I plan to update this by Friday of each week.  If you scroll down to the end of the blog and work your way up you can catch up to what preceded this week's post.

Academy Hill

1943 Academy Hill School Records

 

I spent October 11, 2016, at Botetourt County Schools' offices in Fincastle, Virginia, reviewing archival documents.  While conducting early research I became curious as to whether there were any circa 1930's/1940's records remaining from the schools of the time.  After an email exchange with admin Betty Holland we determined it would be worth the time for me to come in and take a look at what they had.  What I found was a treasure trove that I hope will always be preserved.

 

The image above is from the Academy Hills School for Negroes class of 1943 report.  Line item 4 is the listing for Norvel Lee.  There was more information such as the names of the students on the left but my PhotoShop skills prevented me from capturing the two images here.  That record also shows the teacher as Mr. Roger Terry who taught for many years at Academy Hill.   He plays a significant role in Norvel's life, which is described in Chapter 2 of the book.

 

I found this record from one of the many boxes of material Betty Holland had placed in the room and set aside for my use.  The boxes were labeled for each school year and inside each I found the records divided into two sections:  Colored and White.  The records were very well organized and obviously prepared with care at the time in both sections.  I believe I was the first to have looked at them for many years.

 

I was so taken by the documents and the care with which the teachers recorded the information in them that I decided to dedicate the book to the memory of those teachers, especially Roger Terry and Georgia Meadows.  Mrs. Meadows story will be worth following up on in the future.  Her history is scant at this point, and just like it was with Norvel I want to know more.  I learned from the Botetourt County Historical Society she was born in the 1910's in Botetourt County, attended the segregated schools and somehow got accepted and graduated college from Columbia University in New York and then went to graduate school at Harvard.  But after those accomplishments she chose to return to Botetourt County and teach the young people in the segregated schools, most notably the elementary school in Eagle Rock, near where Norvel lived.  I'm guessing she likely had to walk away from opportunities that would have carried her far in an academic lifestyle.

 

The records show that Norvel, his brothers James and George, and sister Edna all had Georgia Meadows as a teacher.  I subsequently learned that Edna became friends with Georgia Meadows later in life and they saw each other when Edna returned to Gala to visit.

 

I went through all the boxes and found many entries for Norvel and his siblings.  Significantly, most of the line items for Norvel included a note in the comment section concerning his stammer.  I had learned about his speech impediment from his granddaughter Daryn during our early communications but it still surprised me to see reference to it in the records.  Later during the research and interviews I noticed it was one of the first things people mentioned about him.

 

A subject for another time is that during my studies I found a box containing the minutes of the public meetings the Botetourt County School Board conducted at the time.  From those documents I learned that throughout the 1930's the blacks in the community actively promoted the establishment of a high school in Fincastle. Those efforts finally resulted in the Academy Hill School for Negroes holding its first classes in 1939 with Mr. Roger Terry at the helm.

 

Next week I'll report on discovering the cemetery where Norvel's mother is laid to rest.

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Learning about Norvel Lee, the person

 

I was mesmerized by the treasured memorabilia and artifacts Norvel Lee's family put on display for Barbara and I during our first meeting on November 13, 2016.  The image above is one of hundreds items we looked at.  What I learned that day began to set the stage of what and how I wanted to tell the story.  Those of you who have read the book will recognize passages or images related to the following items we discovered that day:

 

1)      The Washington D.C. addresses where Norvel and family lived over the years.

2)      Numerous certificates and awards recognizing his accomplishments.

3)      Silks and jackets from his boxing days including the London Olympics, Helsinki Olympics, Pan American Games,     Golden Gloves, and AAU.

4)      The U.S. Air Force awarding Norvel its Meritorious Service Medal.

5)      The State of Maryland's awarding Norvel its commendation medal.

6)      Norvel's Master of Arts Degree from Federal City College.

7)      The document from the D.C. Board of Commissioners appointing Norvel to the Boxing Commission (the first       African American on it).

8)      A variety of formal invitations to D.C. social events, including presidential inaugural balls, and one for a formal reception at the Mali Embassy commemorating its proclamation as an independent nation.

9)      Many newspaper articles reporting on his boxing exploits.

10)   The news release from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, noting Norvel's last time in the ring in an exhibition match while on two-week active reserve duty.

11)   A letter from Dr. Mercer Cooke on embassy letterhead congratulating Norvel for his assignment to the goodwill tour of West Africa.  In the letter Cooke mentions the French class Norvel took from him at Howard University.

12)   Several photographs that are included in the book.

13)   Funeral announcement from the Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church in Gala, Virginia for Norvel's father James Jackson Lee.

14)   An invitation from the Montgomery County Maryland Special Olympics to host a boxing clinic.

15)   His listing in the Who's Who Among Black Americans.

 

The above is just a sampling of the treasures I saw that day.  Each item was accompanied by one of the family members relating a back story.  I was glad to be able to make an audio recording of the day because there was so much contained in each story.  One such story involved a group of men gathering in the basement of Norvel Lee's home playing cards on Friday nights.  His grandchildren, Danielle and Daryn, (and their parents) lived with Norvel and Leslie when they were youngsters.  They remembered fondly the men playing the card game pinochle.  I will have more to say about that in a future blog posting.

 

Several months later I met with the family again, specifically to follow up some items with Margaret Russell (Weekie) which I'll also provide more details about in a future post.  

 

Next week, I will backtrack somewhat and talk about what I learned about the Academy Hill School for Negroes where Norvel attended high school from the archives at the Botetourt County Public Schools offices.

 

Have a healthy and safe Memorial Day weekend!

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Meeting the Family

 

Last week's post described how I connected with Norvel's granddaughter Daryn Anderson.  After we exchanged numerous emails and a few phone calls she and I thought it would be beneficial for me to see the scrap books and other memorabilia the family saved over the years.   On Sunday, November 13, 2016, Barbara and I met the family for the first time at Margaret Russell's home in Maryland.  

 

The photo above is from that first visit.  From left to right are Danielle Anderson, Margaret Russell, Daryn Anderson and me.  Those who have read the book will recognize Mrs. Russell as "Weekie."  She is the younger sister of Norvel's wife, Leslie, and the source of many of the family stories captured in the book.

 

One of the many qualities I love about my wife Barbara (too numerous to list them all here) is her ability to make sure everyone is comfortable in any situation.  She thought a great icebreaker would be to bring some Botetourt County goodies with us to acknowledge Norvel's connection to our area of Virginia.  She went to a local store (Ichenberry's) and brought some Gala Apples and other local snack items.  Gala, in the northern part of Botetourt County, is where Norvel was from.

 

When we arrived at Margaret's home in a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood we were greeted warmly by Danielle, Daryn, Margaret, and her son Bruce.  After they offered us beverages Barbara explained the story of the snacks we brought from Botetourt County.  I then introduced where I was on the project, indicated that this was likely going to be a book.  I asked and received permission to record the afternoon.   That recording is three and a half hours long (I just now checked the recording file, still saved on my computer). 

 

During those three and half hours I got to know Norvel Lee personally.  Enough that I thought I could begin to try to capture his personality in words.

 

In my previous exchanges with Daryn I learned that Norvel had a pronounced stammer.  It was at this first meeting with the family where I learned that Margaret's sister Leslie tried to help him with it.  The fun scene in the book about her helping him was created from what I learned this day.  

 

Next week I'll have more to say about visiting with the family.

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Beltway Boxing History: Norvel Lee!

 

Except for what was described in the Fincastle Herald articles, I found no other local information about Norvel. Judy Barnett at the Botetourt County Historical Museum suggested there may be some people in the Eagle Rock area that might remember the Lees and I thought it could be interesting to talk with them at some point. But I was looking for information about his accomplishments in the larger world.

 

So, I did what we have all learned to do when investigating a subject. I typed “Norvel Lee” into the Google search engine. But there too, the information was sparse. There was a lightly populated Wikipedia page about him, but it lacked any substantive detail. Likewise I found websites focused on boxing data, and some for the Olympics where, after digging, Norvel was noted. (By the way, if you Google “Norvel Lee” today many links comes up on the first page, because of the attention he’s been given since I started the research. The Wikipedia page has been updated also).

 

But in September of 2016 I was about ready to throw in the towel (so to speak) when I noticed an item several pages deep on Google. It was a blog by Gary “Digital” Williams called “Boxing Along the Beltway” or BATB. The banner for BATB is the image shown above. The Google item that came up was entitled “Beltway Boxing History: Norvel Lee!” This obscure item surprisingly became the impetus that resulted in the book! Williams’s blog was centered on the greater Washington DC area boxing scene. To this day he posts information each week.

 

The entry I found was dated July 26, 2012, during the time of the 2012 London Olympics. The subject of the article was boxers that missed getting the accolades that later Olympic boxers did. One of them was Norvel Lee, the first Washington D.C. based gold medal winner. BATB’s large following posted many comments, some edgy. As I scanned through them I saw at the end an entry from D. Anderson. It said: “Gary, thanks so much for this article on my grandfather! Our family would like to respectfully correct your information, however. . .” Anderson went on to clarify factual errors that were in the article.

 

D. Anderson was Daryn Anderson, Norvel’s youngest grandchild. I contacted her through LinkedIn and on September 8, 2016 we spoke on the phone. It was the first of many email and phone conversations between her and I. It was quickly established that she and other members of Norvel’s family would be excited about me working with them to assemble material for a story about his life.

 

Next week I will discuss when Barbara and I met the family for the first time. In between now and then I will be virtually attending a local book club meeting who will be discussing NORVEL. Looking forward!

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Virginia State Supreme Court Case Number 3558 - Part 2

 

The image above is from a 1948 train schedule obtained from the C&O Historical Society in Clifton Forge, Virginia.  I went to the society to research the particulars of the train Norvel Lee was on when he was arrested.  I specifically wanted to know the time of day train #310 left Covington on its way to Clifton Forge on September 14, 1948.  I was taken to a large upstairs room in the building, where there were shelves and files containing archival detailed information on railroads.  That historical society at the west end of Clifton Forge, Virginia, is a true treasure for train buffs!  I imagine it has to be one of the largest collections in the world.  The information I collected helped greatly to support the accuracy of the details described in the prologue of NORVEL.

 

Last week I reported that I read the 54 page transcript of the court case in one sitting.  Here is the section of the record that made me sit up and want to pursue more about what kind of man Norvel Lee was:

T. Moore Butler, representing the Commonwealth of Virginia, is questioning Norvel.

 

   Q.  Didn't anybody make you sit there?  You did that because you were determined to sit there, regardless of the rules?

   A.  No.

   Q.  Why did you do it?  Why didn't you go back to the section that was provided for you?

   A.  Both seats were the same.

   Q.  You knew you were not supposed to sit in that section?

   A.  At that time, the sign was turned both ways.

   Q.  The brakeman got on and advised you.  You knew it then didn't you?

   A.  Yes, sir.

   Q.  Why didn't you go back in the colored section?  Why didn't you do that?

   By the Court:  Go ahead and answer the question.

A.      I didn't think it was necessary. 

 

For me, that last statement demonstrated the character of Norvel Lee:  His intellect, pragmatism, and resilience. Another interesting section in the transcripts is how Norvel's attorney, Martin A. Martin, got into the records - over the objections of Butler - the fact that Norvel had just returned from London as a member of the 1948 U.S. Olympic team.

 

I later learned that Norvel's attorney, Martin, was a partner with the law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson.  His partners, Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson joined the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately leading to the racial integration of public schools.  All three men were alumni of Howard University and were classmates with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  (As an aside, I recommend the movie Marshall staring Chadwick Boseman).

 

After absorbing the material in the court documents I wanted to know what Norvel's personal motivation was for his act of civil disobedience.  I spent much time and energy during the early phases of the research trying to learn more by visiting Howard University and perusing documents at the Library of Congress.  I will have more to say on those efforts in the future. 

 

Next week I will report on getting in contact with one of Norvel's grandchildren.

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Virginia State Supreme Court Case Number 3558 - Part I

 

For those who are new here this is the third edition of my weekly blog, posted by Friday of each week.  Its theme is to record the many anecdotal back stories I encountered while researching the book about Norvel Lee.  If you scroll down to the end of the blog and work your way up you can catch up to what preceded this week's post.

 

Above is the image of the cover of the court documents relating to Norvel Lee's appeal of his conviction for violating Virginia's Jim Crow Laws.  The August 17, 2016, issue of The Fincastle Herald had an excellent report on that September 1948 legal case.  So much so, I couldn't help but to dig deeper into it.  The research began by making contact with Catherine O'Brion, Librarian-Archivist, with the Virginia State Law Library in Richmond, Virginia.  She located the documents for Case Number 3558, Norvell Lee v.  Commonwealth of Virginia, and arranged for digital copies to be sent to me.  Notice that Norvel was spelled with two L's on the official document.  During the many phases of researching Norvel's life I found several documents and newspaper articles that included the extra L.  However, his birth certificate (which I have a copy of) and his family members reiterated that Norvel's legal name contained only one L.  

 

As soon as I received the fifty seven page document I read it in one sitting. It was compelling!  The first thirteen pages consisted of a summary of the facts and some legalize regarding positions from the prosecution (The Commonwealth of Virginia) and the defense (Norvel Lee).  Next were the transcripts of the testimony.  I was riveted by what I read.   I felt that the entire case could have been made into its own book but instead, when I decided to write NORVEL, I used it for the prologue.  Those of you who have read the book will know that it begins at the Alleghany County Courthouse.  The testimony in that opening scene is taken directly from the transcripts. 

 

Part 2 of this fascinating episode will the subject of next week's blog.

 

Stay healthy, stay safe, enjoy reading.

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First Steps

 

 

Above is the headline I referred to in last week's post.  It's from the August 17, 2016, edition of the Fincastle Herald.  The accompanying story - actually two stories - is what launched the journey I went on discovering the life lived by Norvel Lee.

The headline article summarized the known facts of Norvel Lee's life.  It reports he was born in Eagle Rock (I found out later that he was born at Lick Run in northern Botetourt County) on September 22, 1924, graduated high school from the Academy Hill School for Negroes in Fincastle, Virginia, and enlisted in the service during WWII.  The article goes on to summarize his incredible boxing career, his academic achievements in which he eventually earns an ABD (All But Dissertation), and his thirty year military career eventually retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves in Washington D.C.  The article makes note of his career as an educator and his pro-active involvement in many civic endeavors.

But what really got my attention was the companion article on page 8 with the headline:  "Norvel Lee's arrest and conviction for violating Virginia's Jim Crow Law made headlines in 1948."  The article goes into the detail about the case but, in short, he was arrested for sitting in the white section of a C&O local train going from Covington to Clifton Forge.   Lee was fined $5 for the misdemeanor, but instead of accepting it he appealed the case on the grounds he wasn't subject to Virginia's Jim Crow Laws because his ticket was for interstate transportation and that made him not subject to the local laws.  

After reading the two articles I wanted to dig deeper.  I wasn't planning on a book at that point.  But I was curious about two things in particular.  What was life like for Norvel growing up in Gala and how did he get involved in the Jim Crow case?  I began researching both themes.   Shortly after seeing the articles I began inquiries with the Botetourt County Historical Society, Botetourt County Schools, the C&O Railroad History Museum in Clifton Forge, and the Virginia Supreme Court.   Next week I'll talk about what I learned from the Virginia Supreme Court.

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The beginning

 

This is the first post of an ongoing blog where I will chronicle the "once in a lifetime" journey I've been on researching and writing the book NORVEL about the remarkable life of Norvel Lee.  I'm hoping to post updates here on Friday of most weeks.  I'm looking forward to responding to your thoughts, questions and comments each week. 

 

What's amazing to me is how the journey continues even now, after the publication of the book.  Just recently I was put in touch with the person whom Norvel's family entrusted his 1952 Olympic gold medal with.  Above is a photo of the medal.

And just this week our local weekly newspaper here in Botetourt County, The Fincastle Herald, published an article about the University of Virginia (UVA) establishing a scholarship in the name of Edward Barnett.  Barnett was the first African American to graduate from UVA's School of Architecture and is the late brother of Judith Barnett who played an important role in the genesis of the book. 

 

Judy volunteers at the Botetourt County Historical Society.  It was Judy, while the Olympics were being held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, who was informed by long time residents of Gala, Virginia, about Norvel Lee's Olympic accomplishments.  Judy passed the information along to the Fincastle Herald whose August 17, 2016, publication carried the headline: "Botetourt County native won Olympic gold in the boxing ring."  Underneath was the byline stating: "While that was a great accomplishment, it was not the only reason to recognize Norvel Lee."

Barbara, my wife, put that headline in front of me that morning, knowing it would catch my interest.  And it did. There was something about the story that compelled me to dig deeper.  I wondered why nobody mentioned this to me during the eleven years we had lived here at that point.  I wondered why his story was ignored at the time.  I needed to find out.  

 

See you next week.  Send me your thoughts and questions.  

 

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