Tom Lee Remembered for
Heroic Act, Impact on
For a few minutes last week, one of the more complex political discussions in Memphis was put on hold by a simple story from 1925.
The Memphis City Council chambers was filled to near capacity with teachers and parents gathered by Memphis City Schools leaders to protest the council’s decision to cut funding to the system.
But for about 10 minutes the focus was on the heroism of a man 85 years ago who had little if any formal education and who saved 32 people from certain death in the Mississippi River even though he couldn’t swim.
The U.S. Coast Guard honored Tom Lee, who died of cancer in 1952, with the Coast Guard Certificate of Valor. Nearly two dozen descendants of Lee, from Memphis and the Atlanta area, accepted the honor. They then watched as Lee received a standing ovation from those who came to City Hall for the events of here and now.
“One life is what we all hope to be able to save in our time. For Tom Lee to do 32 in one night is absolutely remarkable,” local U.S. Coast Guard Commander Patrick Maguire told The Daily News. “It’s been very well-recognized locally and now he’s been nationally recognized as well.”
Silent and solo mission
Lee pulled 32 people from the Mississippi River south of Memphis on May 8, 1925, when the steamboat they were on capsized in the swift river current. Lee saw the boat, M.E. Norman, begin to shift and then flip as he was traveling back to Memphis on a smaller boat called Zev.
He turned the Zev around and began picking people out of the river. He made two or three trips to the shore to drop off those he rescued and even built a fire for the survivors. Seventeen others swam to safety without Lee’s help and 23 others died.
Those on the Norman were civil engineers and their families who were on an outing as part of a convention of engineers being held in Memphis. Many of the Memphians on board were among the city’s most prominent citizens.
Lee could not swim and after the rescue modestly gave some of the credit to the people he helped. He referred to them as “the sensiblest drowning folk I ever saw.” Those Lee rescued remembered him not saying a word as he pulled them out of the water and onto his small wooden boat.
By the next day, the rescue had begun its life as the city’s best-known river story. Lee had been an anonymous 39 year-old laborer when he saw the M.E. Norman capsize. By the next morning when he ended his overnight vigil cruising the river for more survivors, he was a hero.
Eight days after the rescue, Lee was in the White House Rose Garden shaking hands with the president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. The Engineers’ Club of Memphis bought Lee a house in North Memphis and set up a bank account to pay the taxes on it and provide for Lee and his wife. Lee was hired by the city as a sanitation worker.
The impact on the future when 32 lives are saved is incalculable, said Terry Watts, a great-great-nephew of Lee.
“It’s an individual who’s color-blind. He doesn’t think. He reacts. … Look at generations that go on because of it,” he said.
Watts and other family members are planning a family picnic to include the thousands of descendants of Lee as well as the descendants of those who survived because of his heroism.
Consider that one of those noticed by Lee floating in the river was a young woman in a bright yellow dress. Later, the woman would say she was convinced that it was the bright color that caught Lee’s eye as she floated helplessly in the swift river current.
That woman was Margaret Oates, later to become the wife of Hugo Dixon. Together, the couple became two of the city’s most visible philanthropists and patrons of the arts. When they died in 1974, their East Memphis home and grounds became the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Maguire submitted Lee’s name for the overdue honor after a casual discussion about Memphis history with Coast Guard Lt. Gerald Thornton. The casual discussion led Thornton to find out more about a black man who went from nearly complete anonymity to an acclaim that was both unprecedented yet still bound by racial attitudes of the time.
“He was one of the first African-Americans hired by the city. … There’s a lot of things I didn’t know about,” Thornton said.
Lee’s descendants have kept the story alive over the past 80 years. Charmeal Alexander, Lee’s great-great-niece, especially was persistent in her quest for a new monument in Tom Lee Park that would include his image and negate the wording on the 1953 obelisk that proclaimed Lee a “very worthy Negro.” She came from the Atlanta area, where she now lives, for the Coast Guard honor.
But the park was her first stop, as it usually is whenever she is in town.
“Every time we come here we go to the park and whoever is in the park my husband and I will tell them the story,” Alexander said.
Honoring Lee also has been a way for Alexander to honor her father, Herbert Neely, who began the effort in the 1980s but died before the recent recognition including the new monument.
“Just because they’re gone, their spirit is still here,” Alexander said. “To have their dream come true through you, how much more glory can you receive after that? That’s really what counts in my heart, just to make sure that my father’s dream is actually living on.”
The Coast Guard honor is the latest in a series for Lee. The new monument was dedicated in 2006. Mansfield Street, in the Klondike section of North Memphis, where he and his wife lived after the 1925 rescue, also has had an honorary name change. And Ballet Memphis debuted an original work in 2004 based on the river rescue.
Memphis river hero
home at risk
Tom Lee was headed upriver from Helena, Ark., to Memphis when he first saw the steamboat founder in the water. Lee slowed the engine of his boat and looked back just as the teetering boat capsized in a heavy current.
Lee, 39 and mostly uneducated, had worked on the Mississippi River and as a field hand and levee worker. He was about to realize his lifelong dream of owning a little cabin where he and his wife could garden and raise chickens. He turned his boat downstream and began to collect steamboat passengers struggling as they spilled into the main channel of the Mississippi River on May 8, 1925.
Lee couldn't swim, but he pulled four boatloads of people from the water into his open boat. He got 32 of the steamboat's 72 passengers. Seventeen others managed to swim ashore on their own, while 23 died. They were members and guests of the Engineers Club of Memphis on an inspection tour of flood control work on the river.
By the next day, Lee had become arguably the biggest hero in Memphis history. In gratitude, the club members with the help of The Commercial Appeal raised more than $3,000 to buy and repair an 800-square-foot house that Lee's family now hopes to rescue from a neighborhood where stray bullets sometimes whiz past and where arson once struck four houses in a single night.
The house was Lee's reward for heroism that went beyond pulling drowning men and women from the river. When Lee got passengers to shore, he mounded sand onto some to keep them warm while he returned to pluck others from the cold water. He then built a fire to warm them before leaving again to search for bodies near the shoreline. Lee later told reporters the people he saved were "the sensiblest drowning folks I ever saw."
Among them was Margaret Oates, who carried a yellow umbrella, like a parasol. She was the date of an engineer who abandoned her when their boat capsized. She opened her umbrella and used air trapped inside for flotation until Lee rescued her, says University of Memphis historian Dr. Charles Crawford. She later married Hugo Dixon and became a namesake and cofounder of Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Eighty-seven years later, the little house at 923 Mansfield in the Klondyke community where Lee lived out his dream sits boarded up and abandoned.
Helen Ross, 68, who lives a few houses north of the Lee House, recalls the night four houses burned: "There were fire trucks everywhere." Last summer she and her sister were watching TV as a bullet flew through her living room window, grazed her sister's cheek and struck a water pipe in the kitchen wall. A plumber later found the bullet, which Ross saved.
It is a reminder to her of what has become of her neighborhood. Vandals have broken into the Tom Lee house more than once. It is now boarded up with what neighbors call gang graffiti on some of the boards. But the Lee house could be a different reminder for the neighborhood, she says. "That house is history to the people. It can teach a lot of youngsters about learning to do good."
That's also the goal of Tom Lee's great-great-niece, Charmeal Neely-Alexander, a secretary for Caesars in Las Vegas. She hopes to preserve the house, about the size of a double-wide mobile home, and move it Downtown like the W.C. Handy home on Beale Street. "I would like to see it moved somewhere near the FedExForum or beside the W.C Handy house," she says.
She has gotten little encouragement. "The city doesn't have the funds," says Memphis Landmarks Commission head Nancy Jane Baker. But Baker says her office is applying to list the Lee house on the National Register of Historic Places and to help get a historical marker through the Tennessee Historical Commission.
"If push comes to shove, I would agree that the best way to preserve the house is to move it," says Baker. But she says the city's Community Development Corp. also would like to spur neighborhood development by keeping the house and its eventual historical marker as a positive aspect of a neighborhood "that needs some support."
The house now is owned by social worker Yvonne Irons of Bolivar, who says she has delayed doing anything with it out of respect for Tom Lee and to give Lee's family time to explore ways to preserve it.
Memphis Heritage executive director June West would like to see the structure moved to prevent further damage to it. "We don't have the funds nor access to funds, but we would certainly advocate for it if someone wanted to pick up the baton and move forward."
That's the rub. Charles B. Thompson, president of the Memphis Engineers Club, says it plans to include Lee as part of the club's 100th anniversary celebration in two years. But he says moving the house, renovating it and preserving it would amount to a "money pit ... You've got a list of houses as long as my arm that are better built houses with good roofs, and they're sucking air. No one in their right mind is going to do that."
Thompson says the house served its purpose as the fulfillment of Tom Lee's dream. He lived in it with his wife until he died of cancer in 1952. Two years later, a granite obelisk to his memory was erected in what had been Astor Park. It was renamed Tom Lee Park. The archaic wording on the obelisk described Lee as "a very worthy Negro." The obelisk was blown over and shattered by the storm known as Hurricane Elvis in 2003. The Riverfront Development Corp. with City Council approval allotted $207,000 to build a Tom Lee Memorial Plaza with a statute of Lee reaching from his boat to save a drowning man. The original obelisk was repaired and sits near the new statue.
Dixon Gallery and Gardens development director Susan Johnson says Margaret Dixon's rescue by Lee does not alter the museum's mission of "funding the arts," and that the museum could not divert funds to supporting an effort to save the house.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen says the statue, the obelisk and Tom Lee Park are sufficient tribute. "It's not like the house has any value in itself. The value is in the man and his noble action, and that's encapsulated in the park and the memorial."
Neely-Alexander disagrees, saying the park and its tributes to her great-great-uncle are nice, but fail to convey how Lee became an enduring symbol of compassion and heroism for the city.
© 2012 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online