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Nancy Harriette Hemings Butler Lee Story
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Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.

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Pittsburgh Club Women
Black Pittsburgh Geography

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Aunt  Nancy

This section is my attempt to tell Nancy Harriette Lee's story as I knew and understood her beliefs and values during my many years of very close observation, listening and learning from a "gifted child."  

Nancy H Lee

She believed that a liberated (Jeffersonian) life is about "doing" as opposed to a slave mentality of "being." Messianic believer all the time that I knew her, with a faith rooted in the heritage  of ancestral believers in the philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth (not to be confused with Aristotle, Paul, King James or King Cotton)

Like Thomas Jefferson, she read and understood bibles as the world's great literature and as with Jefferson perceived the biblical books nor any other philosophies super-cede the distinctive philosophy of life espoused by Jesus of Nazareth: (1) Love God, (2) Honor thy fathers and mothers, and (3) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  She lived her life within that philosophy believing that "it alone" was the cause and source of personal liberty cherished as salvation from chattel slavery.  She very well read on various philosophies.

Small in physical stature, she perceived that physical and mental well-being were achieved by working one's body and mind in goal oriented hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly civic minded life. It was via Nancy, her parents, siblings (including my parents) that I came to realize at an early age that a philosophy of living nurtured on the teachings of Jesus was a lot more than the tenets of organized religious practices of most African-Americans (singing and praising, ... not studies and practicing).

And, she also articulated the reality that most White Americans opposed integration with attitudes and behaviors they considered to be inferior to their own.  As a believer up from the trials and tribulations of her own ancestors, ... she tried to model her life after Messianic minded educated professional women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell.  She was  inspired by parents (Mary Elizabeth Hemings Butler Lee and Thomas Findley Lee on left) and grand-parents in what Jesus urged his disciples to do.  Tough minded and consistent, she perceived herself as a disciple not deterred by doctrines and laws that categorized and classified her as "less than promised in the Sermon on the Mount."

Nancy was a close friend and associate of Dorothy Height who experienced the tribulations and humiliation of the 1930s in the Pittsburgh area coldness, not simply the weather.  They both saw and heard reasons for joining together in the National Council of Negro Women.

Her life of scrubbing floors and other menial jobs in Pittsburgh as a "Cinderella" daughter of the American Revolution was like that of thousands of other daughters denied and ignored in the aforementioned struggle and after-math for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness (her ancestor William Lee was crippled as a soldier in the war)

Nancy went out into the world around her to shared her observations of what she had "seen and heard."  The motivation necessary for a young African-American woman in the 1920s ... to get a higher education grew out of this desire to propagate knowledge among "the least of us."

Nancy would date but never marry having devoted her most productive days, weeks, months and years as a woman with a sense of mission to help her parents and siblings relocate from the impoverished status of poor dirt farmers in Ohio scratching out a living in the Woodrow Wilson era when anti-African-American sentiment was at its highest level at any time since the Civil War.  Her father, Thomas Lee had been born a slave on the great Custiss Estate in Arlington, Virginia on the day John Brown was hanged, and like other Lee offspring from William Lee had a love affair with training and using horses and mules.  The 19th century descendents of William prospered in the world of horses and mules as the primary means of transportation.

Thomas Lee was a livery specialist and like many thousands of African-American men, enjoyed self-employment in the horse and wagon days before the great World War and conscription of his two eldest sons in the fight for liberty in Europe that for the most part glorified and romanticized military conquests and warfare.  For him and his kind in America and rest of the world, the so-called war to end all wars did not end in 1918 but rather a mere prologue for the coming of World War II by men and women determined to be superior human beings to others on earth. 

The ideologies of many 19th century Europeans, including some immigrants to the Americas and Caribbean, ... was unfortunately cemented in the factors of greed and ruthlessness rationalized as somehow good, ... ends justify the means.  And, these ideologies engulfed the entire world in war. 

As a social worker, many years before she received a degree certifying her as such, ... Nancy Lee was very skeptical that a few years of progress did not mean the ending of racism and anti-Black sentiment around the world.  America in the first decades of the 20th century had a large influx of people from Europe who came to find a better life; and, she applauded their efforts to do so. 

However, she observed that many of the same immigrants came with the attitudes and behaviors to uphold and even enforce racial segregation and discrimination approaches to African-Americans.  Not all, she was quick to add, but many were so anxious to be Americans, ... they adapted attitudes of the people they sought to emulate. 

Nancy would later observe that much of what she read about German propaganda, she had read in the American press and seen in movies like "Birth of a Nation."  In actuality, the Jews of Germany were far more integrated and respected in German society than African-Americans were or would ever be in American society in the 20th century.

The big difference of course was that perceived "threats" in the German press were the so-called non-Aryans, particularly the Jews in Europe and Americas.  Adolph Hitler was a mad man, but Nancy recognized the difference between him and many other tormentors of humanity was that he had been able to amass the power to inflict a terrible pain on the people of Europe.  For her the racism that had dominated so much of what was in the world press prior to World War II had helped impoverish her hard-working mother and father unduly categorized and classified as undeserving.

Thomas Findley Lee, like most other African-American men prior to World War II could not obtain a Public Utility granted license for livery services.  Ohio made it clear and in writing that such licenses would not be granted to African-Americans.  Competition with White men was absolutely forbidden in the minds of many of America's policy-makers, north, south, east and west.  Pennsylvania was an exception wherein a cousin in the Pittsburgh region named Temple Lee had been able to secure a trucking license to haul coal for the mines but also to generate wealth to help others, both Black and White. 

And, to his great regret, one of the White owned businesses that he helped establish in the coal livery business successfully conspired with mine owners to force him out of the business and into bankruptcy.  Indeed, the story of Temple Lee helped motivate his cousins in Ohio and Virginia to keep hope alive that African-Americans could earn a living in the livery businesses flourishing across the country.   And, believe it or not, .... the struggle to obtain race-free licenses as livery and taxi operators was not won until era of Mayor Marion Berry in Washington, D.C. who as mayor in the 1970s decided that Black men ought to be worthy to have their own taxi licenses. 

Nancy witnessed the humiliation heaped on her father for wanting to own and operate a livery business in which he was required to acquire a license from the state.  She began to understand how powerful the state, any state, is in the shaping and outcome of who does well. 

As in all societies, even those of the ancient kings, ... government matters a lot in determining who will earn and even learn to do so.  The government decides who will be enabled to pursue opportunities, not just that of education but also enterprise.  There was a deliberate policy in place from the early 1900s to at least the beginning of World War II to empower and help enable 20th century immigrants from Europe; and, very often with the expressed desire to prevent African-American incursions into various enterprises like trucking.

In her adult years as a social worker, she saw the Public Utility authorities all across the country work quickly to eliminate non-White ownership of enterprises ranging from truck farming to waste pickup and disposal that Black men had done very successfully for two centuries, even as slaves.  She would often joke that Black men could pick up dead bodies that White undertakers did not want to touch; but, not trash the mafia organized into modern waste disposal enterprises.

For Nancy, government was less about services, and more about power to determine and distribute benefits and privileges.  Social inequities and direct impacts on family existence and sustainment, by law, were self-evident to Nancy throughout her adolescent years.  The inability to function in Ohio in the transport industry literally forced her father and siblings to migrate to the Pittsburgh region in search of better economic opportunities (of the kind being sought by millions of 20th century immigrants coming into America via Ellis Island).   

Nancy Lee's father and mother retired from their labors in Ohio, and moved to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania region after his cousins (Arthur, and offspring (Marion, Fredrick, Nancy. Edward, Vina, Percy, Vina, Clara and Billy) had made the move to new opportunities in the mills and mines of Western Pennsylvania where regulations still allowed African-Americans to be mule drivers and other livery tasks that required licensing.  *(Percy joined Barnum and Bailey Circus as a Trombone player)  

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