Charlotte Lee grew up in a family of teachers and eventually became one herself. Born in Boligee Ala., in 1931, she would go on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree, getting her Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1959.
She spent much of the 1960s at Alabama A&M as a graduate teaching assistant in biochemistry. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing at the time, including at the university, Lee recalled.
The youthful looking 77-year-old Lee, wife of District 200 school board member Ralph Lee, became a TA at the historically black college in 1962.
“The students had already started sit-ins and were beginning to become active,” she said.
One year during graduation, Lee recalled, the students wanted to choose their own guest speaker at the ceremony but weren’t allowed to. She vividly remembers the ceremony, held in a large gym at the college. The students were unhappy with the speaker, so they’d all clear their throats in unison when he spoke or would rub their feet against the floor.
Though the incident didn’t involve the kind of violence bristling at some other schools and institutions across the south, Lee said, everyone there knew what blacks were fighting and dying for all across the nation.
While sitting in the living room of the couple’s home on North Cuyler Avenue, if you were black and living during that time, you couldn’t help but know. Though Lee wasn’t on the front lines of the movement, she, like so many blacks at the time, faced discrimination on a regular basis.
Before getting her Ph.D.-in 1959, the same year she and Ralph Lee married-she studied for a master’s degree in nutrition at Tuskegee University in the early 1950s.
Lee recalled visiting a classmate in another town near Montgomery. Back then, if you went anywhere it was usually on the bus. And if you were black, you were expected to sit in the back, she said.
On this particular day, Lee was sitting a couple of seats from the front and a group of white people were about to board.
“If you sat anywhere expect the front two seats on the bus, the driver wouldn’t bother you, unless there were a lot of people who were white getting on,” she said. “And that particular day when I was more than half way to the back, I sat down and then they just poured in.
“The driver said, ‘You need to get up and move back,’ and I just didn’t feel like moving way back there. So he said, ‘If you’re not going to move back you have to get off.'”
This was well before Rosa Parks, who would become a civil rights icon for refusing to move to the back of the bus, an incident that initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, launched in 1955-considered the beginning of the civil rights movement.
This was the early ’50s, but Lee wasn’t budging.
“A white lady stood by my seat, so I just patted the seat next to me,” she said.
The driver got up, took Lee’s bag and walked off the bus. She recalled sitting there for a few seconds before getting up and walking off the bus. The bus drove off, and Lee sat at the station for six hours waiting for another one to show up.
“I’m sure I didn’t cry, but I felt like crying,” she said.
Lee isn’t angry or bitter about the incident-or another one she recalled while on a trip with fellow students to Texas. They stopped at a drugstore in Louisiana. A couple of the girls sat at the counter and Lee joined them.
“And, of course, we were all asked to move,” she said. “There was no violence, we just knew to get up, and we got up.”
Growing up in Boligee in the 1930s and ’40s, racism and violence was all too prevalent. That included lynchings said Lee, who grew up in a family of 13. She never saw one herself, but when they occurred, the next day a mark would be placed on the tree or a sign saying, “Another Negro who met his end.”
She doesn’t think it was written by whites.
“I would hear my dad say, ‘Well, another one of us have been killed.’ We knew what had been done because you’d find out the next morning that there is a black man that’s dead and there would be some kind of writing or icon left on the tree. I don’t know that the whites would put that up. And those used to bother me, to hear about them.”
Lee, whose family name is Outland, remembers another incident from her childhood when the father of one of her friends was found dead on the railroad track near her family’s home. People at the time believed he was murdered by whites.
“No one could believe it was just the train,” Lee said.
She didn’t grow up hating whites, she says, but those memories won’t fade away.
“It’s something that’s so difficult to forget,” she said.
This summer Wednesday Journal will profile Oak Parkers who lived during the Civil Rights Movement and how the movement impacted their lives.