Author Kenneth F. Conklin gave a book talk on his novel, Norvel, the autobiography of Norvel Lee, at Eagle Rock Library last Saturday.
Norvel is the story of Lee, who was arrested for taking a seat in the white section of a segregated train, traveling from Covington to Clifton Forge, while a member of the U.S. Olympic team, in 1948.
Lee was born in Lick Run, just north of Eagle Rock. He grew up in the Gala/Eagle Rock area and attended Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church. Traveling from Covington to Clifton Forge, after visiting relatives in Covington, Lee was arrested. “A member of the U.S. Olympic Team, a Tuskegee Airman, a man who served in World War II, and he gets arrested for sitting on the train,” said Conklin. It was a $5.00 misdemeanor, but Lee appealed the case. This landmark case was overturned by the Virginia State Supreme Court as state law could not interrupt interstate travel, according to Conklin’s research. “The testimony in those transcripts was so compelling that I used the exact testimony in the prologue,” said Conklin.
After leaving rural Virginia, Lee attended Howard University and was one of the first African Americans to be accepted into Washington, DC’s Golden Gloves. Among some of his other accomplishments were becoming a member of the 1948 and 1952 U.S. Olympic teams, making history at the 1952 Helsinki Games Afterward he received several post-graduate degrees; served in World War II and later as a senior officer with the U.S. Air Force Reserves. He educated and mentored young people, and contributed to community outreach organizations in the Washington, DC area.
“He was a legend in the DC area,” according to the Washington Post.
Despite obstacles such as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws, limited schooling opportunities, and a speech impediment, Norvel’s life journey led to exceptional accomplishments in the larger world.
Lee was married with two children at the time of his death in 1992. Effective July 1, a portion of US Route 220 will be renamed Norvel LaFollette Ray Lee Memorial Highway and on Sept. 17 at 2:00 pm, just past Sinking Creek Rd. on US Route 220, a Historical Marker will be placed in his honor.