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VOL. 10 | NO. 24 | Saturday, June 10, 2017

Editorial: One Tom Lee Memorial, Not Two

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For the second time in 14 years, the original Tom Lee obelisk memorial has been toppled by straight-line winds.

The city should take the hint and send the monument declaring Lee a “very worthy Negro” to a museum as a relic from a past era of patronizing racial distinctions that have no place in modern society – either as aspiration or fact.

When the 1950s-era monument fell during “Hurricane Elvis” in 2003, there were calls from Lee’s descendants to erect a more appropriate monument.

That happened in 2006 with David Alan Clark’s monument depicting Lee’s May 1925 rescue of 32 people whose boat had capsized on the Mississippi River south of Memphis. Still, though, the obelisk was repaired and restored.

The people Lee saved that day on the river were civil engineers and their families who were in Memphis for a convention. Lee was about as anonymous a hero as anyone could imagine. He was a laborer running people from one point along the river to another on a makeshift boat called “Zev” when he saw the Norman capsize on his way back to Memphis.

Calmly and without a word, Lee, who could not swim, pulled people from the river current and with several on board ferried them to dry land. Just a few days later, he was in the Rose Garden at the White House shaking hands with President Calvin Coolidge.

Some but not all of the desire to honor Lee was framed by the racial segregation of the time and white thoughts about what an appropriate black role model was. Lee got a job with the city as a sanitation worker. The Engineers Club bought him and his wife a house in Klondike and paid the taxes on it for the rest of his life. And two years after his death from cancer in 1952 – still at the dawn of the civil rights movement – Astor Park was renamed in Lee’s honor and the obelisk was erected.

The newer depiction tells Lee’s story in a more compelling, visual way, circled by a ring of lights – one for each of the lives Lee saved.

Removing an obelisk Lee’s descendants do not consider worthy of his memory seems a very small step given the bold action New Orleans recently took with its removal of Confederate monuments. This is a way to begin reclaiming Memphis’ history for what it really is, not for how leaders of a different era thought it should define racial roles and political fairytales.

After that, it is but a short distance physically and politically to letting go of another monument to an outdated notion: the 1962 statue of Confederate States president Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park – formerly Confederate Park, which billed itself as “a memorial to the old South.”

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