UI's 'unofficial dean' of black students getting 'well overdue' honors

UI's 'unofficial dean' of black students getting 'well overdue' honors

CHAMPAIGN — Back when black University of Illinois students were shut out of campus life, they had a friend in Albert Lee.

A 52-year employee in the UI president's office, Lee voluntarily helped fill in gaps for black students, who could enroll in school but couldn't live in university housing or eat at many campus restaurants.

Lee offered black students his guidance. He helped them find housing through the families at his longtime church, Champaign's Bethel AME. He made sure they had Sunday suppers and a place to study.

And in the 70 years since his death, Lee and his contributions as the "unofficial dean" of black students have gone mostly unrecognized.

That's poised to change this weekend as the UI, the church and others get together in a tribute intended to honor the man who helped pave the way for the black students of his time and those who have followed to get a college education.

Lee is one of the unsung heroes whose name had fallen off the pages of history, according to Bethel Pastor Larry Lewis.

"When you look at the accomplishments and convenience that we are enjoying today, we have achieved it on the backs of many unnamed individuals," he said.

Lee helped more than students, Lewis said. He also helped pave the way for local black residents to be employed by the UI.

"He was very instrumental in bridging the gap between the University of Illinois and the community," Lewis said.

Lee was born on a farm northwest of Champaign. He graduated from Champaign High School, got married and had three children. He was the second black person to work for the UI, starting out as a messenger for the office of the president in 1895 and working his way up to senior clerk before retiring in 1947, according to his biographer, Vanessa Rouillon.

One of the students helped by Lee was Eleanor Conrad, according to her niece, Barbara Suggs-Mason.

Conrad, who became an educator and honored civil rights activist, spoke many times about turning to Lee for help when she was a UI student and felt a teacher was discriminating against her, Suggs-Mason recalled.

Lee talked to Conrad's teacher, and "whatever he said, it worked out," Suggs-Mason said.

An interim assistant superintendent of schools in Matteson, Suggs-Mason grew up in Bethel AME Church.

Thanks to Lee, she said, the church used to open up its space for black students to study. Lee further oversaw regular "lyceum" events at the church, in which young people gathered for evenings of music, debate and public speaking, Suggs-Mason and others said.

"It really helped establish a sense of unity in the community and a sense of unity among the African-Americans," Suggs-Mason said.

She calls recognition for Lee "well overdue."

"I'm just happy that his legacy is being recognized, because a lot of people would not have been able to attend the university and complete their degrees at the university without his assistance," she said.

Coordinating events for this weekend — some of them open to the public, some private — is Rouillon, who got her doctoral degree at the UI and is now a writing, rhetoric and technical communication professor at James Madison University.

Rouillon discovered the work of Lee during her UI student years when one of her course assignments was to find evidence of race within the UI Archives, she recalled.

Her interest was first sparked by a small notebook containing Lee's musings on how to accommodate black students. Then an archive employee told her about three boxes of Lee's writing and correspondence, Rouillon said, "and I couldn't let go."

"He was the voice for African-American students," she said. "He allowed them to experience their education with minimal discrimination."

Included in the plans for this weekend will be the unveiling this morning of a new headstone for Lee's grave, which up until now had been unmarked in Champaign's Mount Hope Cemetery, Rouillon said.

The headstone was half funded by the UI and half funded by a handful of private donors, she said.

Also this weekend, there will be a display of Lee's works at the UI archives, the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Lee this afternoon at the entrance to the UI president's suite and a lyceum program at Bethel tonight to celebrate the life of Lee with readings, music and speeches.

What's on tap

A few of the events planned for this weekend to honor Albert Lee will be open to the public:

— Headstone unveiling and dedication, 11:30 a.m. today, Mount Hope Cemetery (611 E. Pennsylvania Ave., C): Seating will be available for family only, but standing room is available for others.

— Lyceum program, 7 p.m. today at Bethel AMC Church (401 E. Park St., C): Includes readings, music and a talk on Mr. Lee presented by UI Chancellor Robert Jones. Among other speakers expected: Cecilia Conrad of the MacArthur Foundation; Sandra Gibbs, an Illinois graduate and Bethel member; and Vanessa Rouillon, Mr. Lee's biographer.

— University Archives Exhibit on Mr. Lee's racial work at the UI main library (1408 W. Gregory Drive, U): To remain for about a month and open to the public after a first viewing by guests today.

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