To me, at the age of 10 years old, he was a cowboy, farmer and a man who could fix anything that was broken. Little did I know he was dedicated to fixing a system of educational discrimination in a small town in rural Texas. Roger W. Lee was my paternal grandfather. Born September 9, 1900, he grew up in Oakland TX, the population at the time was less than 100 people. My grandfather, as a young boy valued education and strived to get his college degree even through the resistance of his father, who believed that it was more important for young black man to earn a living as farmer to support his family. It took my grandfather nine years to complete his college undergraduate degree. He eventually earned his masters and Ph.D in the years that followed. This was amazing for a black man (or “colored man” as they referred to his kind in those days) to accomplish such a task in the 1930s. His “calling” was to teach the uneducated children of south Texas.
In 1935, my grandfather and his wife, Josie Porche Lee, traveled from town-to-town and farm-to-farm to teach black children to read and write. This was the foundation for the establishment of the Oakland Texas Normal School. This school was dedicated to the education of black students and training for future black teachers. He did not subscribe to the theory that education was limited to reading, writing and arithmetic. His teaching approach included current events, community and social engagement, and science. He wanted to expose children to other careers and life experiences beyond that of farming life in south Texas. My grandmother would host an annual social outing for the children called “May Day”. This event would allow the children to perform skits, play music and classical dance performances from Broadway plays.
Last year, the Oakland Normal School was dedicated as a historical landmark. My grandfather was recognized and honored during the celebration. I accompanied my parents to this event. Upon my arrival, I was amazed by the attendees at this event. All were citizens of Oakland and were all either in their late 70’s or early 80’s. They were both black and white attendees. Upon learning that I was Professor Lee’s grandson, I was welcomed and greeted with words, hugs and expressions of gratitude and pride. It was overwhelming to hear the stories about how my grandfather impacted the lives of these people. They were sharing stories of their interactions with my grandfather as if it was just yesterday. One person even suggested that I had his smile. One gentleman in particular impressed me with his words of gratitude. He said “Prof. Lee got me into college. He helped me with the entrance exam to the University of Houston. I had trouble with the questions related to the science portion of the entrance exam. It took me awhile, but I finally graduated”. Other people would tell me how patient and caring he was and how he could understand how some of them were limited by their lack of knowledge about life outside of Oakland, TX. Therefore learning to read gave them a gateway to the world outside of their rural environment.
As I stood in this one room small schoolhouse, I could not help but wonder what it must have been like in 1935 as a black youngster learning to read, write, and add. Even if I were to be equipped with an academic foundation, would I be allowed to dream about life outside of this small rural town? Would formal education neutralize the racism and discrimination that I suffered thus far in my young life? Would my academic foundation provide me a one-way ticket to success and happiness? Could I someday be like Professor Lee? I wondered what it was like to be a student in that class. I remember there was one thing my forefathers of the Lee name would emphasis to their children, “no matter how far you go in your schooling, no matter what kind of job you eventually get, always maintain your dignity, integrity, and a sense of giving to others in need”. My forefathers and foremothers provided me great examples of these words through their actions. Thank you grandpa, I hope I have made you proud.