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For those who are new here the theme of this blog is to record the many anecdotal back stories I encountered while researching the book about Norvel Lee.  I plan to update this each week, hopefully.  If you will scroll down to the last page of the blog and work your way up you can catch up to what preceded this most recent post.

The Pinochle Gang

 

I sent Mike Mehalic a copy of NORVEL today.  You will find him mentioned as a source in the acknowledgements section of the book. 

 

During the initial meetings and conversations with the family I learned that Norvel Lee played the card game pinochle with a group of men on alternate Friday nights.  They called themselves the "pinochle gang."    

 

In early January of 2017 Norvel's granddaughter Daryn contacted me saying she had found one of the pinochle players and that he would enjoy talking with me about Norvel.  On January 23, 2017, Daryn and I met Mike Mehalic at his Washington D.C. home.  The ensuing conversation, which I recorded, was packed with anecdotal colorful stories that helped inform the latter chapters of the book.

 

We learned (and this was news to Daryn also) that Mehalic and another member of the pinochle gang, Al Maltz, met Norvel at the National Training School (NTS) for Boys in Washington D.C. in 1953.  All three men were instructors at this institution for juvenile delinquents.  (The cover of NORVEL is a photo of Norvel Lee in his classroom at NTS.)  They began playing pinochle together during their lunch breaks before establishing the Friday night games.  The pinochle gang held together for nearly forty years.  Both men, introduced at the beginning of Chapter 25, went on to play important roles in Norvel Lee's life.  The image above circa 1990 includes members of the pinochle gang.  Mike Mehalic is second from the right of the top row and Al Maltz is next to him on the end.  Norvel is seated at the front left.

 

And, remarkably, it was me that told Mehalic about Norvel's act of civil disobedience described in the Prologue of the book.  During all those many years they knew one another Norvel never mentioned the incident.  That said so much about Norvel Lee's character.  At one point during our talk Mehalic told us that Norvel was "the nicest person he had ever met."

 

I had always wanted to follow-up with Mehalic after the book came out, but couldn't find him.  He was 85 at the time of the interview and moved from his home shortly afterward.  Just recently I learned that he was residing at a senior living facility in Maryland.  He will have his copy of NORVEL in a few days.  I hope the book brings back fond memories of his friend Norvel Lee and of the "pinochle gang."

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The Jacksons of Leesburg

 

Through a series of improbable events that are described in NORVEL, Leslie Jackson and Norvel Lee are introduced by her brother, Robert Jackson.  They fall in love and marry in 1951.   Chapter 10 of NORVEL takes place at the Jackson family home on Ayr Street in Leesburg, Virginia.    This is where Norvel meets the family who become a significant influence on him for the rest of his life.

 

Margaret Jackson (aka Weekie), Leslie's sister, told many stories from her childhood when I interviewed her, including those about the diverse acquaintances the family had in the Leesburg area.    It was clear from talking with her that the Jacksons of Leesburg were well-liked and respected.  Her father and mother were active in the community and attended both the Methodist and Baptist churches.  There was not enough space in the book to tell all the Jackson family stories so I focused on the ones that directly influenced Norvel Lee's life.  But I did feel compelled to briefly introduce their cousin, Mervin Jackson.   The image above is of the charming park in the center of Leesburg named after Mervin Jackson.  He continued the Jackson's tradition of community service and serving on the Leesburg City Council. 

 

While I was in the middle of writing Norvel, Barbara and I have made it a point to visit Leesburg.  We drove by the Jackson's Ayr Street home and, of course, walked through Mervin Jackson Park.  It was my plan to introduce NORVEL when published to active Leesburg history groups, but the pandemic has constrained those efforts so far.  If any of you reading this are aware of people in Leesburg who would be interested in this story I will appreciate you bringing the book to their attention. 

 

Stay healthy, stay safe.

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R.I.P. Chadwick Boseman

 

This latest post pays tribute to the great actor and humanitarian Chadwick Boseman who died of cancer this past Friday at the age of 43.  Like Norvel he was a graduate of Howard University.  Although they were five decades apart they share the honor of being Howard alumni who went on to doing good in the larger world.  Plus, in my mind, Boseman would have been perfect for the lead role in a movie about Norvel Lee.  

 

The link below is a 35 minute video of the 2018 commencement address Boseman gave at Howard University. Please set aside the time to watch the entire video.  It's very inspirational.  And listen as he talks of his brief encounter with Mohammad Ali. 

 

Chadwick Boseman - 2018 Commencement Address at Howard University

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Finnish Boxing Historian - Petri Paimander

 

In the spring of 2018 I reached out to the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).  Their website says they were established in 1982 "for the express purpose of establishing an accurate history of boxing; compiling complete and accurate boxing records; facilitating the dissemination of boxing research information and cooperating in safeguarding the individual research efforts of its members by application of the rules of scholarly research." 

 

I asked IBRO for any information they had on Norvel Lee, especially regarding the Dual's Tour and the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.  Shortly thereafter I received an email from Petri Paimander, Finland's boxing historian.  After a few email exchanges he sent me a series of emails with attached photographs and newspaper clippings (mostly in Finnish).  The image above is one such photograph.  The book has scenes set in several of the locations shown:  The Olympic Stadium, the Messuhalli - where the boxing events took place, and the Velodrome.  Those of you who have read the book will recall the Velodrome is where the athletes would go and socialize.  And the label "Vanha Olympiakyla" is the Olympic Village.

 

The information that Petri provided compelled me to obtain a copy of the official Olympic report published by the Finnish organizing committee.  It proved to be a wealth of information.  Later, I asked and received permission from the Sports Museum of Finland to use several of the photographs found in that report. 

 

My communication with Petri only lasted about a month.  After our dialogue and information exchanges I was ready to continue with the writing and other research.  I reached out to him again when NORVEL was published but have not heard back from him yet.  I just want everyone to know the information he provided helped provide the descriptions and many anecdotal stories found in the chapters about those 1952 Olympics.

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"Bout"

 

I can't say that I was an avid fan of boxing when I set out to write NORVEL, but I wasn't ignorant of it either.  I sparred a bit with a former Golden Gloves champion while serving in the Army and had watched some of the highly publicized televised matches when I was growing up.  And then of course there were the classic movies such as Rocky, Raging Bull, and Requiem for a Heavyweight where boxing served as the platform from which a story of an individual could be told.  

 

Compelled to know how Norvel Lee became involved with boxing led me to learn more about the sport in general, especially the paths other young men took to become involved in boxing and the organizations that supported them.  I found plenty of print media information available from the early 1950's when Norvel was the national heavyweight champion for both the Golden Gloves and the AAU while on the Howard University boxing team. Using old newspaper articles and other sources I dug into the lives of boxers he encountered. I was looking for someone I could interview who knew Norvel at the time. 

 

Those of you who have read the book will recall that in Chapter 11 (page 118 in the hardback) the boxer from Boston, John Boutilier, is introduced. "Bout" as he is known goes on to play an important role in subsequent chapters, especially the one on the 1951 Duals Tour in Europe. 

 

Employing my first pass at research (Google) on the boxers who may have known Norvel I came across a 2012 obituary on John S. Boutilier of El Cajon, California.  It began with "Loving husband, father, and grandfather, remarkable teacher, athlete, boxer, artist, farmer, handyman, builder, golfer, party-giver, star-gazer, and hammock swinger." That description went along with the colorful newspaper articles that were written about him during his boxing days.  More importantly, in the obituary I found the names of his two children and subsequently connected with Lisa Telles, John Boutilier's daughter. 

 

After the first email exchange with her I asked for any information she had on her father.  Here is what she sent me:  "I do remember my dad talking about boxing in Europe, but I don't recall if he ever talked about the specifics.  I will ask my mom when I see her this weekend.  The stories I recall were about the relationship between my dad and his father, who had also been a boxer.  We have two suitcases of memorabilia and newspaper clips from his boxing career."

 

The image above is on one of those clips:  John Boutilier and his father. 

 

I will have much more to say about Lisa and her contribution to the making of NORVEL.  Those of you that attended the book talk I gave at the Fincastle Library will remember seeing her there.  Suffice to say she and her family will be lifelong friends of ours.

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The Library of Congress

 

In the last post I reported on my visit to Howard University to see if I could find any paper trail amongst their impressive archives regarding Norvel's act of civil disobedience.  I spent the next day, May 24, 2017, nearby at the Library of Congress (pictured above), to continue the quest by searching the NAACP records archived there.  It was the NAACP through the law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, that defended Norvel and took the case through the appeals process.  I was hoping those records were preserved in the Library's collection.

 

Several weeks earlier while preparing for the visit I received an email from Edith Sandler, a Manuscript Reference Librarian from the Manuscript Division at the Library.  I learned that the Manuscript Division was a special section in the Library of Congress that required credentials to access.  The reason for vetting is that individuals granted access handle valuable historic documents while conducting their research.  She also provided an extensive list of topic headings the manuscripts were filed under, and labeled boxes in which they could be found.  There were many such items on the list I was interested in.  An example was:

 

BOX II:B1-B221 Part II: Legal File, 1940-1955 Correspondence, memoranda, briefs, transcripts, proceedings, affidavits, reports, lists, notes, newspaper clippings, and printed matter. Arranged alphabetically by name of individual or court case or by type of material or subject and there under chronologically.

 

After arriving in the morning and securing my credentials I entered the manuscript room, took a seat at a desk and submitted a request for a box of manuscripts.  They were delivered to my desk and I began reviewing each one, handling them by the edges as required. 

 

I was looking for:

 

   Ties/links between the NAACP and Howard University in 1948 and 1949.

   Ties/links between the NAACP and the Hill, Martin, and Robertson law firm.

   Any evidence of Norvel interacting directly with the NAACP.

 

I spent hours upon hours mesmerized by what I was handling.  I had in my hands many original letters written by future US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall responding to various civil rights cases that the NAACP was considering becoming involved with.  The stories behind each one of those would likely be a book in itself.  There were letters from other NAACP luminaries at the time, including Lester Banks who makes a brief appearance in NORVEL.  But most moving were the numerous notes and pleas from individuals looking for the NAACP for help dealing with racial injustices they had experienced.  It was clear they had nowhere else to turn. 

 

I was easily distracted by what I found and had to remind myself why I was there.  By the end of the long day I didn't find any documents related to Norvel Lee or his attorney, Martin A. Martin.  It was at this point I decided to just relate the incident the way it was described in the court documents and not to speculate myself what was involved.  I'm still hoping someday to stumble upon Martin A. Martin's archival records.

 

Next time I will talk about meeting a person who, since the time of reaching out to them, not only gave me key information for the narrative on Norvel's AAU boxing years but provided key support in the roll out  and ultimate success of NORVEL.

 

Stay healthy, stay safe.

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Visiting Howard University

 

It seems appropriate on this 155th anniversary of Juneteenth to focus on my May 23rd, 2017, visit to Howard University (HU), an Historically Black College and University.  It's located on Georgia Ave NW, Washington, D.C, about a mile from the U.S. Capital.

 

I wrote the Prologue and Epilogue of NORVEL first, prior to writing any of the chapters.  I felt that Norvel's act of civil disobedience was a story in itself and that it provided the perfect book ends, so to speak.  As described in my second blog post (scroll down to see it) I obtained the transcripts from the court record from the appeals trial.  The testimony in the Prologue is taken verbatim from those transcripts. I found it compelling.  If you haven't read the book yet you can read the Prologue by scrolling down the home page where you'll find a link that will allow you to peek at the book. You can also see it at the Norvel offering on the Amazon Kindle Store by clicking on "Look Inside."  For the Epilogue you'll have to get a real book, either hardback or Kindle.

 

But even after writing the Prologue and Epilogue I still wanted to know the back story.  I thought that it was probable that there was a link between activism on the HU campus that compelled Norvel to challenge the Jim Crow laws on his home turf.  His attorney, Martin A. Martin, had graduated from Howard himself along with his two law partners, Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson.  One of their HU contemporaries was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, also an HU graduate.  The law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson joined the Brown vs. Board of Education case that went to the Supreme Court that ruled the segregation of public schools was illegal.

 

I wanted to know how, on behalf of the NAACP, Martin became Norvel's attorney.  After some Google searches I came upon the name of Tewodros Abebe, or Teddy as he prefers to be called, the senior archivist for the Moorland Springarn Research Center at Howard University.  There is not enough space here to delve into his credentials but I felt honored that he took an interest in my project.  After several email exchanges with Teddy and Sonja Woods, also an archivist at HU, we decided it might be beneficial for the project if I spent some time at the Moorland Springarn Research Center looking over relevant records.

 

When the day came, knowing parking and traffic could be an issue, I took the D.C. Metro (which I love anyway) to the Shaw-Howard University Metro Stop and hoofed it from there to the campus.  Upon arriving, I was awed by the HU grounds when I walked in.  It was a welcoming, serene sanctuary embedded in the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.  The Moorland Springarn Research Center is located in the Founder's Library.  The image at the top is a photo of the Founder's Library building.

 

Howard University was chartered by Congress in 1867, two years after the first Juneteenth.  How that came about is also an interesting story for another time.  The large room containing the research center permeates with its legacy.  I was greeted by Teddy and Sonja and told to submit my research requests and they would locate the item for me.  I was allowed to make copies of any items I needed for further examination. 

 

Teddy recommended I examine the following records:

     -Directory of Graduates, the 1870 to 1976 edition.

     -Editions of the Hilltop, HU's student newspaper, specifically 1948 – 1953.

     -Scabbard and Blade information – 1952 (Honor society for ROTC cadets)

     -Information on NAACP involvement with Howard, 1948 and 1949

 

I found many items, mostly from the various Hilltop articles that served to inform the narrative in the main body of the book.  Norvel's brother James was on the staff of the paper and authored at least one of the articles about his brother.  It was clear by reviewing the documents that there was active mutual participation on the part of the NAACP and the Howard School of Law for defending civil rights abuses in general and questioning the legitimacy of the "separate but equal" standards of the times.  But I did not find any mention of Norvel's case.

 

Visiting and conducting research at Howard University was time I will never forget.  I hope to return someday to visit.  In the meantime I've continued to correspond with both Teddy and Sonja.  When the book was published they asked for a copy to add to their archival collections, which they now have.

 

The next day I went to the Library of Congress to see what else I could find out.  More about that visit next week.

Stay healthy, stay safe.

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George Anna Ray

 

Those of you who have read the book will recall that much of Norvel's early family life revolved around Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church in Gala, Virginia.  I learned this from Judy Barnett at the Botetourt County Historical Society.

 

On November 25, 2016, the day after Thanksgiving, Barbara and I took a twenty mile drive from our home to Gala to see if we could find the church.  I wasn't expecting to be successful.  I couldn't find it listed on Google Maps but I did find a little spur of a road called Mt. Zion Drive, several zigs and zags off U.S. Route 220 (Botetourt Road).  Surprisingly we easily found our way to the little road, which was on the right side of rural Virginia road 694.  On the left was a church with a gravel parking lot.  We parked and walked over to a sign that confirmed that this was indeed the Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church of Gala Virginia, established 1928.  

 

Next to it was a neatly kept cemetery with an assortment of gravestones scattered through it.  Most were simple markers.  Others were more substantial containing hopeful inscriptions.  I came across the one I was looking for.  We stood in silent reverence, staring at what is shown in the image above.  This is the gravesite of Norvel Lee's mother.   Her birth name was George Anna Ray.  But, as described in the book, she was known as Georgiana.  Norvel's brother, George, had something to say about this which I will describe in a future edition of this blog.

 

I learned from the family that the large headstone was added later. Originally it had been a simple marker like many of the others in the cemetery. In the book I tell how the larger headstone came about through a premonition of Norvel's wife, Leslie.  Personally I'm thinking it was so I could find it.

 

While there in this peaceful setting on a beautiful late fall day I also looked for Norvel's father's gravesite but could not find one.  I know his funeral was held there and I presume his resting place there as well.

 

Later we took several of Norvel Lee's descendants to the church and cemetery.  That day will also be described in a future edition of the blog.

 

Next week I will describe trying to ascertain the back story of Norvel's act of civil disobedience.

 

Stay healthy, stay safe.

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Podcast

During this past week I was interviewed on a podcast.  My original planned post about visiting the cemeterty where Norvel's mother is laid to rest will be posted next week.  Here is a link to the podcast.

 

https://pipesmagazine.com/blog/radio-talk-show/pmrs-bonus-show-food-for-thought-olympic-boxer-norvel-lee/

 

 

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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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