Archives exhibit documents role of Albert Lee, early advocate for African-American students

An exhibit at the University of Illinois Archives commemorates the contributions of Albert Lee, who provided guidance for African-American students at the U. of I. in the first half of the 20th century. Courtesy University of Illinois Archives

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.

Records in the exhibit about Albert Lee document his work serving in the U. of I. president’s office for almost 50 years, beginning in 1897.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffe

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.

Editor’s note: To reach William Maher, email w-maher@illinois.edu.

Source: Illinois NEWS BUREAU

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Archives exhibit documents role of Albert Lee, early advocate for African-American students
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Archives exhibit documents role of Albert Lee, early advocate for African-American students
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Albert R. Lee was a pioneer for African-Americans on the University of Illinois campus.