|Flanked by Elks' civil liberties directors Carmela Boykins and Marcel Howard,|
Esther Lee accepts its first ever community service award.
"You know, I'm 82 years old," said Lee with a wry smile. "But I can still walk. I can think. I can see you out there," she joked as Boykins called her "the eyes and the ears of the Lehigh Valley."
|About 200 members of the Black Elks honor Lee|
"Church, church and more church," said Boykins in introducing Lee.
A graduate of Liberty High School, Lee never attended a day of college. Yet she calls education "the key to my life." That, and her interest in children is what sparked her interest in civil rights and community involvement.
"Our children are very important, and they should come first," she said. As the mother of two children attending Madison Elementary School, she peppered teachers and the principal with questions.She decided to join the PTA even though she was the only black face in a white room. "The white mothers decided I should be their President," she said. Those same white parents then encouraged her to run for school board, and in 1971, she became the first African American woman to be elected to a school board in the Lehigh Valley. She would serve for six years.
As a school director, she asked questions, and pushed for changes to improve Bethlehem's school system. But she noted that change is painfully slow. "It took us until 2016 to hire a black secretary in the school district of Bethlehem," she lamented. "that will let you know just how slow we are in getting things done."
She stressed the importance of parental involvement.
"We need parents to raise their children," she said. "Bring them to school. Preachers tell you to bring them to church, but we don't have Sunday Schools any more. That's where you can help children to read." She challenged parents and grandparents "to get up off your seats" and "insure that our children can read. Parents, it's on us."
Lee entered the workforce in the early 1950's, a time which many Lehigh Valley residents view with nostalgia. It was different for Lee. "Bethlehem wasn't hiring us as a people," she observed, but said she was fortunate that a Jewish family took pit on her and out her to work in their dry cleaning business.
Things changed when the Civil Rights Act was enacted, and businesses with federal contracts were forced to hire minorities. She hated leaving the dry cleaner, but was trained as a secretary, and finally got work with several companies during a long secretarial career that ended when she retired as an administrative assistant for the Bethlehem Council of Churches.
As her interest in civil rights deepened, Lee became involved in the NAACP, and is currently the president of the Bethlehem branch. She spoke of the marches that the NAACP and Elks made together on Martin Luther King Day, trying to persuade Bethlehem officials to close city hall on that national holiday. Mayor Ken Smith eventually agreed. She also recounted protests at Lehigh University, which also refused to recognize the holiday.
"I read that Lehigh wants to become more involved in the Bethlehem community," she observed. "The way to become more involved is to acknowledge that we are part of society and not just second class citizens."
Most recently, Lee has been hosting interesting and well-attended forums on topics ranging from education to police violence, and Police Chief Mark DiLuzio and Mayor Bob Donchez have both participated.
"I'll keep working, and I'll get ugly when I need to, as you all know," she said as people chuckled. "May God bless your children and grandchildren so that they can stand up and bear the pressure that this world brings to them."
|From L to R: President Edward Dawkins, Esther Lee, Carmela Boykins and Marcel Howard|