Rev. Morris Lee found racism existed north of Mason-Dixon Line
By CAITLIN WORLEY
When the Rev. Morris Lee came to Youngstown more than 53 years ago to deliver a Sunday sermon at The Third Baptist Church, he didn’t know he would soon live here permanently.
The Rev. Simeon Booker Sr. had asked his alma mater, Virginia Union University, if they would provide a speaker. Booker Sr. was the church’s pastor for 11 years, the executive director of the city’s YMCA for African Americans, and the father of legendary journalist, Simeon Booker Jr. Both Bookers and Lee graduated from that university.
Booker Sr. was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer that would eventually take his life. He had not shared that information with the church membership or with Lee. “I didn’t know that he was that ill,” said Lee. “He was very gracious,” Soon after this visit, Booker Sr. died and Lee was asked to take over as pastor.
“I’m a Southerner … a Virginian. I grew up with segregated schools, segregated transportation facilities, segregated housing – segregated everything. Strangely enough, I thought that when I crossed the Mason- Dixon Line, that I was going to be kind of away from all of that,” said Lee. “I found that there were certain vestiges of discrimination here in this community.”
In the South, segregation was the rule of law. In the North, there was an undercurrent of the practice. “When I came to Youngstown, I found in the financial institutions –there was not one single African American who was employed by any one of those institutions when I came here 60 years ago. Even the folks who cleaned up the banks were white,” said Lee.
“I recall going down with a committee from the NAACP to meet with the president of First Federal Savings & Loan Association. He said, ‘If you find me somebody who has banking experience, then I’ll hire him.’
“How are you going to do this if you don’t have anybody who’s worked in a bank? So, you know, in order to do these things, you must have some intentional change.”
That change would only come about through the efforts made by people of both races. Lee believes that Booker Jr.’s work as a journalist played an important role in awakening the country’s consciousness to injustice and racism. On the local level, another newspaper writer tried to do the same thing. Esther Hamilton worked for The Vindicator, where she had a regular column.
“(She was) a strange woman, but a very powerful woman who had terrific influence in the community and had a terrific influence not only with the newspaper, but with the so-called power structure in town,” said Lee. “She worked very hard to get this Negro fellow by the name of Hugh Frost on the Board of Education. We were trying to get one person, just one (African American) on the Board of Education.”
There are other examples of people working to end segregation of all types in the Mahoning Valley. “There was housing segregation in this town. The financial institutions would not lend African Americans money to buy homes in certain territories. I knew a case when someone wanted to purchase a home on Cohasset – a professional man, well known and greatly received by the community. The Realtor wouldn’t even show him the house,” said Lee.
Another case involved an African-American principal who bought a house in Kiwatha Road, near Canfield. The only way he got the house was because a white man played the middleman in the transaction.
“When he bought that home on Kiwatha, the man next door put up a 9-foot-high fence and went all through the community saying, ‘The Negros are coming.’ Just like Paul Revere.”
These changes and more required effort by people of both races, said Lee.
“We have seen some good things. We’ve seen some changes in attitudes. I have to acknowledge that were it not for some people of influence and power, and goodwill – some of the things that we accomplished … we couldn’t have done all of this by ourselves.
“I have to give credit to all the people who have tried to bring about some change. We’ve had people in every, every walk of life. We went down to Alabama – (The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther) King was having that Selma-to-Montgomery march. It was the so-called Kingpins of Labor who put up the money to lease the plane for all these folks who had gone down there.”
This wasn’t Lee’s first experience with King.
“I had the privilege of marching with King when I went to school. We sat in a big department store. They brought out the dogs and the paddy wagons and all these kind of things to frighten the kids off – putting some of us in jail and all that kind of thing. We didn’t stay, they got us out,” said Lee. “I thought all of this kind of thing was over and I came here (Youngstown) and I learned I (couldn’t live) on Princeton Avenue.”
Lee said there have been improvements in the last 50 years, but more work needs to be done before African Americans have achieved true equality.
“Unfortunately, we have to stop or try to get rid of this anger, this hostility and the latent prejudice that’s within so many folks and start seeing people as human beings, working with one another, giving chances to one another.
“Until we can do that, we’re never gonna be who we ought to be. Never.”