Yes, there were tears.
When the wrapping came off the historical marker to her grandfather, Tiffany Ayler had to step away and fan herself. A family friend ran her hands over the embossed lettering. Even though everyone knew what it would say, there were still exclamations of “wow.”
Alongside a rural road in Botetourt County, history finally caught up with the present on Saturday. The occasion: the dedication of a historical marker to Norvel Lee, who grew up north of Eagle Rock, went on to become a Tuskegee Airman and made not one but two Olympic teams as a boxer, eventually winning a gold medal under unusual circumstances in the 1952 Olympics. “In the boxing arena, Lee had a devastating right jab,” said county supervisor Steve Clinton. “In life’s arena, he had a devastating sense of logic.” Lee didn’t just have to box opponents, he also had to fight segregation.
In 1948, just home from the London games, the Olympic athlete was told to give up his seat on a train at Covington to make way for a white passenger. He refused, and was arrested. This was seven years before Rosa Parks. As Clinton told the story Saturday: “When asked – rather arrogantly – by the prosecutor in his civil rights trial over in Covington, ‘Why didn’t you sit in the section that was set aside for you?’ – meaning the Black section at the back of the railroad car – Lee responded with inarguable logic and elegant simplicity: ‘I didn’t think it was necessary.’”
Lee was convicted, of course, and fined $5. He appealed, and was turned down. He appealed yet again, this time to the Virginia Supreme Court – and the court, to the surprise of many, overturned his conviction. The ruling may have come on what may seem technical grounds – the court ruled that the state could not enforce local segregation ordinances on an interstate train – but it turned out to be one of many blows that undermined the legal foundations of segregation in the years leading up to Brown v. Board of Education. Lee didn’t just knock out opponents in the ring, he helped knock down American apartheid.
For all those reasons, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources last December approved a historical marker to Lee. On Saturday, with some of Lee’s far-flung descendants in attendance, it was officially put on display.
Lee is a classic example of history that happened and never got recognized. When Lee was boxing his way to the gold medal in 1952, there was apparently no mention of his local connection in the region’s daily newspaper, The Roanoke Times. Nor any mention of what is now regarded as a landmark civil rights case. (When I worked at the paper, I looked this up myself and found no mention of him in the archives.) It was only in recent years that Lee’s historic roles, and his local connections, are coming to light. The Botetourt County Historical Society turned up information on Lee while researching the county’s Black history. A 2016 story about that research in the county’s weekly newspaper, The Fincastle Herald, caught the eye of Botetourt County writer Ken Conklin. That set him on a path toward writing a book about Lee – “Norvel: An American Hero” – and the burst of attention that followed its publication has led to the section of U.S. 220 in northern Botetourt being named after Lee (thanks to legislation from Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County) and now a historical marker. (For the story behind Conklin’s book, see this profile we published earlier this year: ‘It picked me up and carried me along.’) Also instrumental in securing the marker was former Roanoke Mayor Nelson Harris, who is today perhaps better known as a local historian who has been responsible for getting six markers approved with two more in the pipeline; see this profile of Harris earlier this year.
Multiple speakers on Saturday all emphasized that the recognition of Lee is long overdue. “Should have been done 50 years ago but it wasn’t,” Austin said.
“Let’s be honest at the outset,” Clinton said in his remarks. “Norvel Lee is not Botetourt County’s most famous son. … He’s just not. But he should be – he should be. For a variety of reasons – looking at you, Jim Crow – we are approximately a half century late in doing this, but today we carry on the process of recognizing Mr. Lee as Botetourt’s most famous son.”
Lee faced multiple obstacles in his life. During World War II, he qualified as a pilot – one of those famed Tuskegee Airmen – but was not allowed to fly because he had a stammer and military brass worried that would complicate communications in the air. He served on ground crews in the Pacific instead. In an era when few Blacks went to college, Lee came home and attended Howard University. It was there that he took up boxing and found he excelled at the sport, well enough to make two Olympic teams. Lee was a heavyweight, but was ranked as an alternate on the 1952 team – a substitute, which meant he wasn’t expected to box in the event at all. The coach told Lee to lose some weight, in case he needed to drop down a weight class. Still, he was a substitute. Then the team’s light heavyweight, Chuck Spieser, injured his Achilles tendon. Lee had to lose 15 pounds in two weeks to qualify for that weight class, getting by only on water for the last 24 hours before the weigh-in. He came in 2 pounds under the limit. Despite losing all that weight, Lee was in good enough shape that he promptly boxed his way to victory in three preliminary bouts before making it to the finals against Antonio Pacenza of Argentina. “Norvel peppered the Argentinian with short scoring jabs and punches from both his left and right hands, while Pacenza failed to land anything significant in the first round,” Conklin wrote in his book. The second round was much the same. Come the third round, Lee landed a blow so hard that Pancenza was heard to utter “oomph!” Lee came at him again, “causing Pancenza to emit a groan,” Conklin wrote. “Pacenza backed off and tried to wildly attack Norvel, but Norvel easily moved his body out of the way. The seconds ticked down until Pacenza, breathing heavily, could hardly stay on his feet.”
With that, he became the first Black Virginian to win an Olympic gold medal. That wasn’t all Lee won at the 1952 Olympics. He also won a trophy as the best overall boxer, beating out even fellow American gold medalist Floyd Patterson, who went on to become a two-time world heavyweight champion. Lee maybe could have done the same. He was offered $10,000 to turn pro. He turned it down, preferring to pursue a career as an educator. “He worked with youth from Washington, D.C., to West Africa, impacting lives,” Clinton said. As an amateur boxer, Lee’s record was 100-5. In his professional life, his resume went on longer. He established a master’s program at what is now the University of the District of Columbia. He worked with prisoners. He served in the military reserves. He never lost his love of boxing, though. Years later, he chaired the D.C. Boxing Commission. He passed away in 1992 from pancreatic cancer.
Life moves on and families go in different directions. That gold medal Lee won now has passed to one of his granddaughters, who lives in Nome, Alaska, where she works for the Department of Homeland Security. Ayler brought it, and some of Lee’s other medals, with her to Virginia so they could be displayed Saturday afternoon at the Eagle Rock library (as part of a larger display on Lee that will stay there long after she’s taken the medals back home). Ayler also spoke Saturday about the unusual experience of having her grandfather’s life celebrated. Many of the accolades read off Saturday by Clinton, Austin and other dignitaries are ones she and other family members were unaware of until Conklin started sharing his book research with them. It’s only in recent years, Ayler said, that she’s come to recognize the gravity of what it means to possess the gold medal that he won seven decades ago now, at a time when it was still unusual for Black and white people to participate in sports together. Ayler recalls her grandfather as a humble man. “He was very low-key, not pompous, not braggadocio,” she said. “The things he accomplished, as a kid, we didn’t know.” To her and other family members, “he was just Grandpa.”
To Botetourt County, he’s now officially the county’s most famous son.