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Lee, J. Kenneth(1923–) - Chronology, Integrates Law School

black north carolina white


Born in Charlotte, North Carolina on November 1


Moves to Hamlet, North Carolina


Joins the U. S. Navy


Receives B.S. from North Carolina A&T College


Enrolls in law school at North Carolina College; joins in suit to desegregate law school at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill


Enrolls in UNC’s law school


Files successful suit to integrate Gillespie Park elementary school


Opens American Federal Savings and Loan Association


Represents over 1,700 civil rights cases in North Carolina, including sit-in case in Greensboro


Becomes first black member of North Carolina’s banking commission


Becomes first black inducted into Greensboro Business Leaders Hall of Fame

Integrates Law School

In June 1950, Lee and Harvey E. Beech of Kinston, North Carolina, entered UNC and as a contingent of law enforcement officers escorted them into the dining hall, “everybody stopped, forks in mid-air,” Lee said in his interview with Eugene E. Pfaff Jr. Their escorts continued for several months. Soon they moved about with little attention, but continued to face racism. At the football games, they were given tickets for the “colored” section behind the goal posts but went back to court and won the right to sit in the general student section. Chancellor Carmichael sent the tickets to them but cautioned, “I hope that you have sense enough not to use them.” He said that the university would not be responsible if they were hit with a rock or if a riot occurred. Racism also worked itself into the law school courses at UNC. In one of Lee’s classes, students sat in alphabetical order and were addressed by the professor as “mister,” but the professor never addressed Lee, simply pointing to recognize him. “It hurt every time,” said Lee. Lee passed the bar examination before his graduation in summer 1952 and was licensed in September; he deliberately missed the ceremony to work in Greensboro.

In 1953, Lee saw the peculiar way the state’s legal system worked for blacks. He served as attorney for a black man in Alamance County who was accused of “reckless eyeballing” a white woman who walked by a field where the man was working. The woman and the worker did not speak to each other. When the case was heard, the judge, dressed in bibbed overalls and working without legal training, disregarded Lee’s contention that there was “no such thing as reckless eyeballing” and sentenced him to two years. The case was reversed on appeal. As Lee handled many other civil rights cases, the road was always rough.

The court room was often a hostile environment for Lee, one filled with total lack of respect for him as a black lawyer. He recalled in the News & Record that on many occasions when he argued a case, jurors would look out the window. During his first jury case, involving five black men charged with killing a white sheriff’s deputy in Moore County, the judge and other attorneys ignored a white spectator who had a double-barreled shotgun in easy view. Although the men had committed the crime and Lee wanted to spare them the death penalty, Lee argued that their arraignment was improper. In the end, the man who actually pulled the trigger was sentenced to life in prison, and Lee was on his way to becoming a successful lawyer.

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a time of numerous civil rights cases in North Carolina and elsewhere. Whether a lawyer was white or black, anyone who advocated the rights of minorities was in danger. Lee became assistant legal counsel for the state NAACP; the other thirty to forty black lawyers in the state would not accept such a post. Lee became local counsel for the first suits to dismantle racial segregation in the state’s public elementary and secondary schools. With his steady and compelling voice, he successfully represented five black children who, in 1957, sued to enter all-white Gillespie Park elementary school in Greensboro. As result, Josephine Boyd won admission to Greensboro Senior High School and the five black children were the state’s first black students to attend previously all-white schools.

Lee, Sheldon "Spike" (1957–) [next] [back] Lee, Canada (1907–1951)

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14 days ago

I cherish the day I met Attorney & Mrs. Kenneth Lee through Uncle Harvey Beech at Surf City Beach. Attorney Lee is also a gifted inspirational writer and a true friend.

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almost 6 years ago

Good information! I'm a native of Hamlet, NC who has spent time with Attorney Lee. My maternal grandfather (Willie Nathaniel Morrison, Sr.) and Lee were high school classmates at Capital Highway School in Hamlet, NC.