SEP 6, 2018 11:00 AM
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Albert R. Lee was a pioneer for African-Americans on the University of Illinois campus.
An exhibit at the University of Illinois Archives documents his official role on campus and his work on behalf of African-American students, as well as his involvement in the community and his family. The exhibit coincides with the 70th anniversary of Lee’s death, as well as the 50th anniversary of Project 500, which sought to increase the number of African-American students on campus.
Lee was a member of the U. of I. president’s staff, starting as a messenger and rising to the position of chief clerk. He was the second African-American to work at the university.
Unofficially, he served in the role of dean for African-American students in the first half of the 20th century. Lee provided guidance for students in getting admitted to the U. of I. and helped them find housing and work. His connection with the black community and churches created a network of families willing to open their homes to students when they weren’t allowed to live in campus housing or eat in campus restaurants.
He was honored recently at a memorial event that included the unveiling of a new headstone for the grave of Lee, his wife and one of his sons. Bethel A.M.E. Church in Champaign hosted a lyceum to celebrate Lee’s contributions and legacy.
The Archives exhibit includes Lee’s documentation of his work in the president’s office beginning in 1897. He was eventually screening calls and visitors to the president and handling correspondence for the office.
“He was a really important player in the president’s office,” said University Archivist William Maher, who advised in the preparation of the exhibit by Jameatris Rimkus, an archives reference and accessioning specialist, with help from Jessica Ballard, a visiting archives resident.
Among the papers in the exhibit are the introduction to a manuscript Lee wrote about working with various U. of I. presidents, and a 1935 letter to President Arthur Willard in which Lee protested a job reclassification from chief clerk to head clerk, which he considered a demotion. His letter details his pride in his position and its significance to African-American community members and students. Lee wrote that he had nearly 40 years of experience working for five presidents and one acting president, doing every job in the office and training others who were elevated to larger salaries and greater responsibilities.
The exhibit includes letters written by parents of African-American students requesting Lee’s help and his responses. A letter from W.E.B. Du Bois in 1924 asked for information on African-American students at the U. of I., for a project by the NAACP looking at African-American students at colleges across the country.
Lee then began collecting information on the African-American students who had attended the university, their achievements and housing while on campus, their graduations and their career paths. Without his efforts, the U. of I. might not know of many graduates who went on to become leaders in their fields, Maher said.
When Lee enrolled at Illinois in 1897, he was one of two African-American students on campus. It wasn’t until the 1931-32 school year that African-Americans represented more than 1 percent of students, Maher said.
Inspired by Lee’s work, Maynard Brichford, the university’s first archivist, and a student continued documenting Illinois’ African-American students through Project Recall in the 1960s. It was initiated at about the same time as Project 500.
The exhibit also details Lee’s involvement in the community. He was an active member of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Champaign and organized educational activities at the church. He was also a member of a black Masonic order. A 1907 newspaper article reported on his efforts to create a reading room for African-American men on the north side of the city.
Records chronicling Lee’s family and its history include a 1908 newspaper article on the death of Lee’s father, who was born into slavery, and a 1948 announcement of Lee’s death in the Chicago Defender. One of his sons moved to Boley, Oklahoma, a black community founded by former slaves, and the son and his family were featured in a 1968 Life magazine story on the town. An Ebony magazine article reported on the son’s invention of a new pressure barbecue cooker and the business that arose from his invention.
The exhibit will remain at the University Archives until early October, when it will move to the Student Life and Culture Archives at the Archives Research Center in the historic Horticulture Field Lab, 1707 Orchard St., Urbana.
Editor’s note: To reach William Maher, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Illinois NEWS BUREAU