Norvel Lee won a gold medal for boxing in the 1952 Olympics, but another light heavyweight wasn’t always his biggest opponent. Racism was.
Four years earlier, the Botetourt County native was arrested and charged with failing to give up his whites-only seat on a passenger train in Alleghany County. The case eventually made its way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which – surprisingly for the times – ruled in Lee’s favor. That case was one of many that chiseled away at the legal foundations of segregation.
Lee’s name is not well-known for many reasons. For one thing, he passed up a chance to turn pro, preferring to continue his education. (One of his fellow Olympic boxers did turn pro; his name was Floyd Patterson, who went on to become the heavyweight champion of the world.) Lee graduated from Howard University and went on to become an educator, a real estate investor and a reserve military officer, finally retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Nonetheless, Lee occupies a place in Virginia history. He was the state’s first Black Olympic gold medalist and his legal challenge to segregation made him a civil rights pioneer.
Lee, who grew up in the Lick Run area in northern Botetourt and lived most of his adult life in the Washington area, died in 1992. Last week, the Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved a historical marker describing Lee’s life. The marker will be erected sometime in the spring, according to Ken Conklin, a Botetourt County technology industry consultant and author of “Norvel,” a book about Lee’s life. Conklin and former Roanoke Mayor Nelson Harris worked to secure approval of the marker, and raise funds for its installation.
The marker will read:
Norvel Lee was born in Botetourt County and grew up a mile northeast of here. He joined the Army Air Forces in 1943, was trained in Tuskegee, AL, and later retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. In 1948, Lee was arrested in Covington for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a train car. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in 1949 on the grounds that the state could not enforce segregation laws on a local train if the passenger held a ticket for interstate travel. In 1952, Lee earned an Olympic gold medal in boxing in Helsinki, Finland. A graduate of Howard University, he was later a corrections officer and educator in Washington, D.C.