Alversa Williams Lee: Jan. 5, 1911 — Oct. 9, 2007: Lee family ‘griot’ was a revered mother

whenry@tri-statedefender.com | 10/24/2007, 7 p.m.

Alversa Williams Lee

In the 1930’s, Alversa Williams Lee was inspired to teach school. But her dream was deferred after failing to complete the eighth grade, then a requirement to teach in St. Louis, Mo.
   
She was 22 when she finally matriculated eighth grade. Because the bar was raised over the years to teach school, her priorities shifted. She married Robert Edward Lee, started a family, moved to Memphis and pursued her dream through her 14 children.
   
On Oct. 9, she left an enduring legacy: 12 of 14 children, 30 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. She was 96.     
   
Mrs. Lee placed a premium on education and was actively involved in her children’s quest for knowledge and purpose. Though she was not formally trained, she laid the foundation for her children to succeed.
   
“Because mom grew up in a rural area, she didn’t finish high school. But she stressed education to her children and grandchildren. She wanted us to be productive,” said Elaine Lee Turner, part-owner of Heritage Tours, Inc., a sightseeing company highlighting historical African-American sites in Memphis.
   
So when Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and Delta Sigma Theta sorority recognized her with the Mother of the Year award, it was a fitting honor for a matriarch who left her children these comforting words:
   
“I couldn’t have made it without my faith and trust in God. I couldn’t have raised my children without God. He’s brought me through a mighty long way. Just remember to keep God in your life and you’ll never go too far wrong.”
   
Though Mrs. Lee was vigilant in her quest for knowledge, she was just as excited about maintaining close family ties. She shepherded her children through the tumultuous civil rights movement and supported them when they demanded justice and equality.
   
Ernestine Lee Henning, then a student at LeMoyne College and one of the organizers of the first sit-in movement in Memphis, was the first of Mrs. Lee’s children to defy the city’s Jim Crow laws. Henning’s actions prompted nine of her brothers and sisters to picket, march, and sit-in for political and social change. Five of them were arrested a total of 17 times.
   
In 1965, the Lee family was featured in Jet Magazine as the most arrested civil rights family in the United States. The family also received an NAACP Merit Award the same year for their involvement in civil rights.
   
Turner said her mother encouraged her children to participate in the movement and to stand up for justice, “because we deserved the same rights as anyone else. She was afraid for us, but she prayed. She knew everything would be alright.”
   
Mrs. Lee moved to activism, Turner said, because her father was born a slave in 1852. She said her mother also was energized because she learned that her great-grandmother, known as “Grandma Mandi” in family circles, was an African brought to America as a slave.