Julius Lee, Age 84. Born in Alabama. Wanted to Go as Far North As Possible To Escape Jim Crow.

IMG_0998
Julius and Effee Lee have been my neighbors for 23 years. They saw my daughter grow up and never fail to ask how she’s doing and share the joy of her accomplishments. I watched their little grandchild take his first steps. Julius loved to walk the baby up and down the block, showing him off. He’s 16 now. They have a large photo of him sporting a mohawk in their dining room. He got a bad grade in math and his parents made him shave the mohawk.

We live in South Minneapolis on a block of stucco houses built in 1932. Going into their home felt familiar — the same little cubbies built into the walls, the same arches between living room and dining room, the same crack in the living room wall. Their cubbies were filled with books. Volumes of stories. A collection of Negro Poetry. Black History.

Julius says: I’ll be 85 if I live to July.  Effie is a few years younger. Effie worked up until recently. She had a stroke in February. Julius is blind now, but he still walks up and down the block most days and I feel lucky when I happen to see him. On Sunday June 5, 2016 he was out in his yard dressed in a suit. Members of Zion Baptist church had just left after conducting a private service and communion for him. I was unshowered and on my bike, headed to the farmers’ market, but I stopped anyway and asked if I could interview him and Effie. We agreed I would call at 10 AM the next morning.

We started with Julius. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the names of his grandchildren on them and a Mason’s crown. He gave me the 2016 Spring Bulletin of the Mason’s to educate me. The Black Masons are a Fraternal organization with roots going back to the 18th century. Today chapters engage in school supply drives and Black History programs. The Minnesota chapter just initiated a “Take the Kids Fishing” program and a “Healthy Lives” event that included private HIV/STP screening.

Julius was born in 1931 in Demopolis, Alabama, the oldest of nine children.

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand me down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….

My parents were sharecroppers. As hard as they worked, they didn’t have anything to show for it. They encouraged us to get out of the place, get moving. Most of my siblings went out east. A brother went to Chicago.

I was drafted into the military out of high school. Served in the Korean War. I fought for my country and put my life on the line. Afterward I said I’m going to get my freedom one way or another. It wasn’t right being treated like that – being an American citizen — I couldn’t live with those (Jim Crow) conditions.

I went to Tuskegee. Afterward I was offered jobs in Miami, Washington D.C, Detroit and Chicago. I didn’t want nothing to do with those places. I didn’t want Chicago. Shoot me up, drug me up, too much violence too much poverty, too much suffering. People stacked on top of each other. Not for me.

I wanted go farther North. They said ‘How far North?’ I said ‘As far as I could go.’ They said ‘How about Minnesota?’ I said ‘I’ll take a shot at that’. They said, ‘Well you know, not many Blacks live up there’. I said ‘I’m not looking for Blacks, I’m looking for equal opportunity.’ I wanted my children to live in a better environment. I wanted the best education they could get.

There was a man who graduated Tuskegee before me and had set up his own catering company in Minnesota. He was looking for Tuskegee graduates to work for him.

When I came to Minneapolis I lived in the YMC downtown. The old building, you know? They had place for single men to live. They kept it nice and clean. Economical. It was like a dormitory, had a nice restaurant and coffee shop. That is where I stayed until I became engaged and married.

I first met my wife at Tuskegee, but she didn’t know nothing about me then. Coincidentally she came to Minneapolis to do an internship for the Industrial Catering company. I was working on the top of a roof . My boss stopped to throw me up a lunch. I saw her in the car and I almost jumped off the building. My boss said,

‘Man don’t jump off that roof! Man, you might hurt yourself! You’ll get to meet the young lady.’

Julius laughed. In that laugh you could hear the young Julius, seeing the lady of his dreams.

__________

The story of Julius and Effie Lee continues. This is the first in a three-part series.