By David Swets
Joseph E. Lee was a Renaissance man in Medieval times.
During a time when the American South was besieged with prejudice and racism, Lee, a black man from Philadelphia, created an extraordinary record of service in segregated Jacksonville within fields ranging from law to politics to education.
Lee was born in September 1849. He would graduate from the Institute for Negro Youth before going on to attend college at Howard University.
He eventually graduated from Howard University with a law degree. It’s thought that black Philadelphia native, Jonathan Gibbs, who became Florida’s first Secretary of State and Superintendent of Public Schools, influenced Lee to move to Jacksonville.
Jacksonville became Lee’s home in 1873 as an attorney working alongside white attorney A.A. Knight, who had been a commander of an all-black regiment during the Civil War. The connection between Knight and Lee is unknown.
Lee must have stood out in Jacksonville as it was very rare for blacks to hold such jobs. In fact, Lee was one of only three black lawyers who were admitted to the Florida Bar in 1873.
“What he was able to accomplish as a black man in the South, especially Jacksonville, in the 1870s is very impressive,” said Joel McEachin, a retired senior historic preservation planner from the city of Jacksonville..
In addition to his legal work in Jacksonville, Lee was elected to Florida’s House of Representatives in 1875, 1877 and 1879. He also briefly spent time as a member of Florida’s Senate in 1881.
Though this was fairly uncommon at the time, Jacksonville was quite different from the rest of the South up until the 1900s.
“Jacksonville was sort of an open city,” explained Jim Crooks, a professor emeritus at the University of North Florida. “At one time, there were four black members on the city council as well as black firefighters and black police officers.”
Crooks, who taught history for many years at UNF, said this openness was due to the fact that so many Jacksonville whites were willing to give blacks a chance to prove themselves
Lee’s list of job titles grew even longer in 1887 when he became a municipal judge in Jacksonville, the first black to receive such a position in the state. That new position wasn’t without controversy however.
When Lee was appointed municipal judge, his opposition discovered that Lee actually lived outside of Jacksonville’s city limits. In order to maintain his newly appointed role, Lee had his house moved. A local mover used logs and horses to roll Lee’s house a few hundred feet so that it was inside city limits.
Lee continued to add to his list of accomplishments when he became the Customs Collector for the Port of Jacksonville from 1890 to 1894 and 1897 to 1898. After this, Lee became the Collector of the Internal Revenue District of Florida until 1913.
He also served for a time as head of the law department at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville as well as a trustee of the college.
Lee’s career was wide ranging indeed. Not only was he Jacksonville’s first practicing black attorney, a high-ranking member of Jacksonville’s political community and a professor at Edward Waters, Lee also received national recognition. Lee had been appointed as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, however he did not make it to the convention as it was convened after his death in 1920.
Just as intriguing as the scope of Lee’s business dealings was the scope of his personal life, in particular his connection to several presidents, which further cemented his political activism.
“He was the only person in Florida who had easy access to the president,” McEachin said of Lee in reference to his relationship with 25th President William McKinley. Lee was even invited to the visit McKinley at the White House.
“That was almost unheard of at the time,” McEachin added.
Lee was also personally visited at his home by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 when the president was touring Jacksonville. Lee also accompanied Roosevelt to a meeting in St. Augustine.
Although Lee’s involvement with the president was not reported by Jacksonville newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier, a popular black newspaper, did carry the only known report of Lee with Roosevelt in St. Augustine.
“Lee’s significance to Jacksonville can be justified by his connection to them [McKinley and Roosevelt],” McEachin said.
President William Taft also acknowledged Lee’s prominence in the state of Florida. Among documents recovered from the house of Lee’s daughter, Carrie Frances Lee, was a signed photograph from the president.
These documents were saved by Lee’s daughter who gave them away before her death. Carrie Frances Lee reached out to Isiah Williams, the Jacksonville publisher of two local black newspapers who had shown some interest in the career of Lee in the past.
Lee was found dead in his office of natural causes on March 25, 1920. He was preceded in death by five children, none of whom reached adulthood. Carrie was the only one of his six children that made it to adulthood. His wife, Rosa B. Lee, was buried next to him in the Old City Cemetery in downtown Jacksonville after her death in 1932.
Today, Jacksonville bears few memorials to this remarkable man.
The Joseph E. Lee Library Museum, once located at 1424 E. 17th St. has since closed.
No other places commemorate the life of this phenomenal man.
“Jacksonville doesn’t know its own history,” Crooks said, “particularly its black history. We don’t do a good job of teaching it and until recently whites didn’t really care about black history. That has to change.”