Black History Spotlight: Lena King Lee

Profile Summary by Evelyn Cusson

Lena King Lee was born on July 14, 1906 in Sumter, Alabama.  Her family moved to Illinois and then to Pennsylvania where her father found work as a coal miner and became an activist for worker’s rights. Lee’s father earned enough to send Lee and her siblings to private boarding school.  Lee graduated third in her class in which she was the only African American student.  She went on to earn a scholarship at Cheyney Training School, now Cheyney University near Philadelphia, and received a teaching certificate there in 1927.  Lee moved to Maryland to teach, first to Annapolis, and then to Baltimore.  She taught sixth grade and married Baltimore businessman Robert R. Lee in 1937, and two years later, received a bachelor’s degree in education from Morgan State College.  Like other African Americans, Lee was not permitted to enroll in graduate studies at the University of Maryland College Park, which remained segregated until 1951.  Undeterred, she earned a master’s degree from New York University in 1947, travelling to and from New York City every weekend. 

In 1947, Lee became the principal at the Henry H. Garnet Elementary School, where Thurgood Marshall had attended elementary school from 1914 to 1920.  That Fall, Lee decided to enter law school at the University of Maryland School of Law because she was frustrated by what she saw as the Baltimore City School Board’s long delay in promoting her to principal.  She continued to work during law school and had the strong support of her husband.  Lee graduated in 1951 and was admitted to the Maryland and Baltimore bars.  Lee was the first black woman to be admitted to the Bar Association of Baltimore City.  After obtaining her law degree, Lee continued her career as an educator, joining the American Federation of Teachers as its first black member and working in the Baltimore City School System.

Lee entered the civic arena in 1955 when Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro appointed her to the Baltimore Redevelopment Commission and then to the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Agency.  Thereafter, Governor J. Millard Tawes appointed Lee to the new Maryland Advisory Council on Higher Education, which proposed a new governing structure for the University of Maryland and former state teachers colleges.  Lee retired from the Baltimore City Public School System in 1964 and began practicing law full-time with Nicholas & Gosnell.  She supported Joseph Tydings’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and two years later, won the Democratic primary for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates.  Lee found political support among teachers and women.  During her legislative career, Lee made the interests of women and children her focus, supporting mandatory kindergartens, day care for low-income mothers, educational television, tougher penalties for child abuse, and improving schools.  She founded the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus. 

After retiring from the legislature due to health concerns, Lee continued a full-time law practice in the areas of family, contract, and criminal law.  Lee, like other African American women, had to fight the double barriers of race and gender to gain a foothold in the legal profession.  Lee used her background in education and her legal training as tools to fight discrimination and advocate for causes meaningful to women that we are continuing to grapple with today. 

*This profile is adapted from “African American Women Admitted to the Bar in Maryland, 1946-1974: Four Profiles of Public Calling,” at pp. 119-121, by Dean Phoebe A. Haddon in Finding Justice: A History of Women Lawyers in Maryland since 1642.