Rev. Lee visited Morris on deathbed; was to marry JoEd Edwards & girlfriend
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, June 26th, 2008 @ 9:43 am
Before Frank Morris died in his hospital room, the Rev. Robert E. Lee Jr. paid him a visit and prayed for him.
Before JoEd Edwards went missing at the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia, Lee was preparing to perform a marriage ceremony for Edwards and his girlfriend, Olga "Algueree" Taylor.
"When JoEd turned up missing we thought he'd gotten 'cold feet,'" said Lee.
Morris died from severe burns suffered after his shoe shop was torched by two white men on Dec. 10, 1964. The FBI is presently taking another look at that murder.
Edwards, a porter at the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia, went missing on July 12, 1964. Friends say Edwards, although engaged, was carrying on an affair with a white woman at the motel and was kidnapped and killed because of that affair.
Gruesome stories circulated on what the Ku Klux Klan and a handful of law enforcement officers did to Edwards. His body has never been found.
As previously reported in The Sentinel, when Lee heard about the fire at Morris' shop, he made a point to visit him in the hospital.
"I've never seen anybody burned so badly," said Lee. "Only the bottom of his feet weren't burned. He was horrible to look at. He was in no shape to communicate."
He sat with Morris for a short time. No one else was in the room.
After prayer, he prepared to leave, and asked, "Frank, who did this to you?"
"Two white friends," Morris answered.
"He never called the names," Lee said.
For Lee, now 94, these two cases, which have never been solved, were just snapshots of a lifetime.
His personal journey has been filled with both joy and disappointment, but his mission to preach the gospel and help people find love for one another continues on a day-by-day basis. Age has slowed him physically, but it has not stopped his work.
His prayer for all, he said, is that "we all live to be the people that God wants us to be."
Robert Lee Jr. was born Aug. 26, 1913, in a community once known as Dennisfield, named after the property owner. It was located three miles north of Clayton on the Catahoula side of the Tensas River. The road to Sicily Island in those days paralleled the river from Clayton to Foules.
He remembers it as a time when everybody was poor, black and white.
"You spelled poor 'p-o-o-o-o-r' then," he said.
Lee's father, Robert Sr., worked for the railroad. His mother, Jennie England Lee, bore 12 children. Only 10 grew to adulthood. Lee was the sixth child.
While he was a youngster, the family moved to a plantation in Concordia west of Clayton called Hell Pocket, a name whose origin Lee never knew.
"We raised just about everything we ate except sugar and coffee," Lee remembers. "Everybody had a small farm then. We worked from sunup to sundown. We raised cotton and corn and beans. Every family had a cow, a hog and some chickens."
The school he attended while growing up was at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which at that time was located between Clayton and Dunbarton.
"We only went three to four months a year," recalled Lee.
Beatrice Carroll was the teacher. She taught 65 poor black children with older students helping to teach the young ones.
One of those older students who helped teach Lee was Maggie Smith. He officiated at her funeral service a couple of years ago.
In 1937, Lee married Lavinia Warren following a long courtship.
"My wife was educated in Arkansas," he said. "She was a great help to me in my studies."
Lavinia's father died in 1930 and the family moved to Arkansas. When her mother died in 1934, she returned to Clayton to live with her older brother, Anthony Warren.
"We were engaged three years before marrying," Lee said.
Both were among the fortunate who had jobs.
Lee worked at the sawmill 10 hours a day, earning nine cents an hour -- 90 cents day.
"I didn't complain," he said. "I was glad to work."
In the days of the Great Depression, competition for work was fierce.
"If I had walked off my job, there were three men waiting to take my place," he said. "Men slept in the boiler rooms because they had nowhere else to go. They were good men who were on hard times like all of us. They rode the trains from town to town looking for jobs."
He recalls seeing many hobos who rode the trains. At the Clayton depot they would fan out looking for food.
"They said if there's children in the yard there's food in the house," said Lee, who recalls that his mother never turned a hungry man away.
His wife Lavinia cooked for a Mr. Hatten, who along with a man named Bishop, owned a grocery store in Clayton. She earned 50 cents day, $2.50 a week.
"The ladies were just like the men," said Lee. "They were glad to have a job."
The couple's wedding was held along the railroad tracks. Loose crossties along the tracks served as chairs.
The Rev. Jimmy Carter married the couple wearing a borrowed shirt. Before the wedding, the preacher's brother, Edgar, and Edgar's girlfriend got into an argument. The girlfriend ran to Carter's house for protection.
Edgar followed. He was drunk.
"They (the two brothers) got into a fight," said Lee. In the shuffle, the preacher's white shirt -- his only shirt -- was torn to shreds and he was forced to borrow another to perform the ceremony.
Edgar died years later without ever recovering from his alcohol addiction.
About 30 people attended the wedding. A few of the women baked cakes.
"Somebody brought some chicken," said Lee. They drank water.
To everyone's delight, Dr. Herman Gibson's mother, Carrie, cooked and delivered a wedding cake. Gibson, who is 84, said he remembers spending time with Lee.
"I'm about 10 years younger than him and he's known me all of my life," said Gibson. "His family used to farm our land in Clayton and I grew up around the Lee family."
Gibson recalls that he and Lee would "go rabbit hunting. We also cut cane to make syrup."
He said he remembered Lee walked a straight path.
"He didn't get into trouble," Gibson said. "He was very studious."
"Neighbors cared about each other then," Lee said. "They helped each other. There were no hospitals. People would sit with the sick. They'd take turns so that the sick were never alone and so that the families had help."
Not that things were perfect, either. Poor black people in those days faced many obstacles in addition to blatant racism.
Lee joined the Army in 1942 after the couple's first son, Willis, was born. He was stationed in Tennessee, and once his wife came to visit. However, there was not a hotel that would provide a room for a black person.
Lee found a place for his family to stay with "a black lady." But finding transportation for his wife and son on the trip home was difficult. The bus was filled with white people with one seat vacant next to the driver.
Lee waited for the driver to make arrangements for his wife to take a seat, but it never happened. Blacks got a ride on a bus in those days only if there was room in the back.
Twenty-five years later "that baby my wife held in her arms drove the same route for Greyhound Bus Company," Lee said.
On Aug. 10, 1946, he was among the first blacks to register to vote in Jefferson Parish. The voter registration certificate he received remains a treasured memento for Lee. He was also among the first blacks to register in Concordia Parish in 1950.
"There were 14 of us men," Lee said. "We stood up against a wall for four hours. There were chairs there but we weren't allowed to sit. We had been told not to bring our wives."
The registrar told Lee and the other men, once they were allowed to register, to ask no questions. If they made a mistake on the registration form, the registrar said the form would be "torn up" and thrown away.
Lee has preached for decades and has been a member of the St. Mark Baptist Church in Clayton for 81 years.
Lee pastored at St. John Baptist in Delhi 36 years before stepping down due to the distance from his home to the church.
His role models included Allen Tanner; Toll Collins, his first Sunday school teacher; Bush Burrell; and Rev. Philip Washington, who pastored St. Mark.
"He baptized me in 1926," Lee said.
Once their sons (Willis, Robert III, James and Curtis) were grown, Lee and his wife traveled. They've visited the White House and in 1980 Lee was a delegate to the White House Conference on Families in Minneapolis, MN.
He was officially invited to the Bush-Quayle inauguration in 1989, but a woman from the church thought his invitation was junk mail. He did not receive the document until the day of the inauguration.
"We find it pretty funny although she was upset about it," Lee said.
Lee drove a school bus route for 33 years in Clayton.
When Lee first started driving, he was elected to represent the black bus drivers, but was not welcomed inside the School Board meetings when the Board was in session. But that changed.
When he retired, the bus driver group was integrated, and as president, Lee was the first and only black in the state to serve as head of an integrated school bus driver's organization. Just as significantly, this man who was once denied the right to attend a public School Board meeting saw the day when his son, James, became superintendent of the same school system.
Lee also helped to organize the first black Boy Scouts Troop in Concordia in 1958. James Lee said the troop was a positive experience for many young men. St. Mark Baptist Church sponsored the troop, which disbanded in 1989.
Rev. Lee organized the Red Gum Waterworks between Ferriday and Clayton, which serves 168 families today. He also helped get cable television in the area, but cable line construction ended just before it reached his house.
"They said it was too expensive to go any further," said Lee.
Lee said the problems of drugs and the disintegration of families are his biggest concerns today.
But this 94-year-old pastor, whose wife of 63 years, Lavinia, died in 2001, is continuing to live what has been a life of triumph.
"I'll go onward as long as the Lord allows me," said Lee.