In 1925, Tom Lee—a black man who couldn’t swim—saved 32 white people from a sinking ship in the Mississippi River. Memphis’s unfortunate attempt to honor him and the decline of his own neighborhood speaks to the city’s ongoing struggle to become a more equitable place.

Editor’s Note: As Americans reflect on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, visual storyteller Martha Park shares the story of local hero Tom Lee and the efforts of his descendants to keep his story alive.

In 1925, when the steamboat M.E. Norman capsized in the Mississippi River just south of Memphis, a black man named Tom Lee rescued thirty-two people from the choppy waters.   Though Lee himself couldn’t swim, he pulled the drowning steamboat passengers into his skiff, making five trips to the shore and back. Once on shore, Lee gathered driftwood and built a fire to warm the people he’d pulled from the water.
Word of the watery rescue spread, and Lee was invited to the White House. He joined Calvin Coolidge in the Rose Garden and was recognized for his heroism.   In a token of their appreciation, the city of Memphis gave Lee what was considered a safer job, a sanitation worker earning two cents per hour.
The local Engineers Club gave Lee an 800-square-foot house in the Klondike neighborhood of Memphis. At the time, Klondike was thriving. Residents could walk or ride the bus to jobs at Sears, International Harvester, and Firestone - all large employers located in or near the neighborhood.
Lee lived in his house in Klondike until his death in 1952.    Two years later, a riverside park was renamed in Lee’s honor. An obelisk was erected, ostensibly to honor Lee. In the obelisk’s engraved script, Lee was simply referred to as “a worthy negro.”
Tom Lee’s descendants are still fighting for his story to be preserved in a meaningful way. Tom Lee’s great-great-niece, Charmeal Neely-Alexander, told me her father always tried to keep Lee’s memory alive, holding Tom Lee picnics every year and telling the story to his children, nieces, and nephews. Charmeal took up her father’s cause after his death.
For years, Charmeal fought to have her great-great-uncle’s house preserved as a historic site.  As the house itself deteriorated, Charmeal contacted the Tennessee Historical Commission about placing a historic marker at the site of the house. All of these options fell through.
Charmeal also worked to replace the offensive obelisk at Tom Lee Park. Today, a new statue shows her great-great-uncle in his skiff, his arm extended to a man clinging to a piece of wood, writhing in the choppy waters.  From certain angles, Lee’s gaze seems to be directed just beyond the man he’s reaching toward, as if there’s something just over the horizon he can barely glimpse.
Today, Lee’s house sits empty and boarded-up, in a neighborhood abandoned by the industry that once made it relatively prosperous. Residents of Klondike, and the neighboring Smokey City community, are surrounded by vacant lots and houses.
Just a few streets away sits the sprawling Crosstown Concourse, the newly completed “vertical village” created in a $200 million-dollar renovation of a 1.5 million square-foot former Sears warehouse.
In some ways, the story of Tom Lee is also a story about the challenges of public memory.   More than any monument or historical marker, Lee’s deteriorating home in a neighborhood struggling to survive   alongside the wealth represented by Crosstown’s renovation,   speaks to the stark disparities of life in Memphis—a city still struggling, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination here—to reckon with its history.
Charmeal wants to see her great-great-uncle included in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.   She’s saved articles and photos about his trip to the Rose Garden, and his Coast Guard Certificate of Valor, awarded posthumously in 2008.
One small panel would be enough, Charmeal says. Just enough space to tell his story and keep it alive for future generations.

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