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Remembering Dorothy Lee: a civil rights leader ahead of her time

This article was originally published in the Tyler Morning Telegraph on Feb. 13, 2013.

By Coshandra Dillard

Dorothy Lee. Courtesy photo/Tyler Morning Telegraph

Many native Tylerites are familiar with Dorothy Lee and her accomplishments, but younger generations may not have heard of her. Nonetheless, she undoubtedly made an impact on Tyler decades ago. The late Mrs. Lee, a community leader who advocated for equal access to education, is among the numerous female leaders of yesteryear. She was known for “telling it like it is,” building relationships with those in power and pushing for social change. People called the activist a “firecracker.” They said she was audacious. Those close to her noted that she would “speak truth to the power.”
“She walked the side of justice for those on the margins,” said her daughter, Sally Vonner, by phone. “It didn’t matter their race, but in most of her work and her journey that was black people. For people who were marginalized by society, in particular in areas of education and healthcare. That’s what she gave her life to and her energy and was willing to be kind of the resounding voice that put power in check.”

One of her notable charges was as an appointed member to Tyler’s Bi-Racial Committee, a group formed by U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice in 1971. The group’s mission was to ease the transition of desegregating Tyler schools. Mrs. Lee later served on several boards and committees, garnering awards and recognition along the way. She worked throughout her life, with jobs at the county extension office, as a domestic worker and at a corner store near Emmett J. Scott High School, where she became involved with students.

“She fought for equal access to education for all children,” Mrs. Vonner said. “It wasn’t just about her children. It was about all children because she thought that was a pathway to a more sustainable life.”

Unlike many community leaders of her day, Mrs. Lee did not have a formal education beyond high school.

“She was a brilliant woman but because of family circumstances she didn’t have the money to go on to college, but she graduated salutatorian of her class,” Mrs. Vonner said. “She never let that hold her back.”

In the spring of 1971, black John Tyler High School students faced disciplinary action after they staged a walk-out following a cheerleader squad election. Parents, who included Mrs. Lee, formed Concerned Parents. They raised money to seek legal representation to ensure students would be allowed back in school without facing disciplinary action.

“I can remember these meetings right in our living room, people coming down from Washington, D.C., about this whole case,” Mrs. Vonner said. “North Tyler was a very close-knit community at that point and so she was always in the work of the community before we integrated. After integration, she got more involved and was kind of thrust into a spotlight because of this walk-out.”

The students were allowed back in school without a marred record.

“That was a victory for them,” Mrs. Vonner, a 1976 John Tyler graduate, said. “I can remember her being just very clear that she was going to support those kids that walked out of school. She felt like they had erred on the side of justice and she was about a person of justice.”

Sandra Nauls-Mast, 59, was a student at the time and became a cheerleader after the walk-out. She remembers Mrs. Lee as a “nice” woman who handled business.

“She didn’t mind speaking up about things that were not right or what was needed in this community,” Mrs. Nauls-Mast said. “She was a great leader.”

Other issues that caused tension in Tyler schools became the target of the bi- racial committee.

“They didn’t stop there,” Mrs. Vonner said. “They had a problem with the Confederate flag and the whole confederacy behind Robert E. Lee’s high school mascot. They fought to have them change that … It’s not a good remembrance of what that symbolizes. She was determined that for the good of the city, for all of the students, that just couldn’t stay that way.”

Justice ordered the school to remove all confederate symbols including its then-mascot, the Rebels. The issues of the day would spark a lifelong friendship between Mrs. Lee and the famous judge.

“She was one of the few people who could show up at his office unannounced and get in to see him because he had that much respect for her,” Mrs. Vonner said.

Minnie Mosley, a close friend of Mrs. Lee, echoed the sentiment. She said her willingness to be at the forefront of community action inspired her, and others, to do the same.

“Whatever setting she was in, people respected her views,” she said.

Along the way, Mrs. Lee faced resistance from some in the community but it didn’t deter her.

“Eventually those very enemies became her foot stool,” Mrs. Vonner said. “They became people who respected her.”

Laverne Madlock, widow of P.E. Madlock, said she worried about her husband and other community members who served on the bi-racial committee.

She said Mrs. Lee was “sincere in her actions,” and that she respected anyone who “does what is right.”

At the time, she certainly left an impression on Mrs. Madlock.

“She was a little spicy,” she said. “You didn’t have to wonder which side she was on.”

Mrs. Lee was also involved politically, working at the polls and encouraging people to vote in local, state and national races.

“Every race was important to her,” Mrs. Vonner said. “She instilled that in all of us that you vote in every election because your voice does matter and the way to make change happen is at the polls.”

In addition to championing for equality in education, she advocated equal access to health care and was appointed to the Texas Task Force on Indigent Health Care by Gov. Mark White in 1983. Her daughter said she had been a trailblazer throughout her life — and beyond. Years before her death, Mrs. Lee knew she’d donate her body to science. Friends, and even family members, were wary about the decision.

“On her (memorial) program I actually put she was a trailblazer even into death because she had did something that many people had never had any experience or exposure to,” Mrs. Vonner said.

Mrs. Lee lived a simple life. In fact, she traveled on foot to work and various community meetings because she never learned to drive. If she didn’t walk, she had plenty of people who were willing to give her a ride. She also raised seven children single-handedly, after she split from her husband. With the achievements and respect in the community, her daughter pondered if her legacy is still being celebrated.

“It’s been almost 10 years (since her death),” Mrs. Vonner said. “I wonder if people even remember her or remember the contributions she made in the community.”

In a 1995 Tyler Morning Telegraph interview following the acceptance of the Smith County Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award, Mrs. Lee said, “Sometimes I don’t think people know I’m alive, but when something like this come about I feel great.”

Mrs. Lee had been active in politics, encouraging people to take advantage of their right to vote and serving as a delegate. She attended President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977. Last month, Mrs. Vonner represented her mother at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, carrying her mom’s “presence and spirit” with her. It was important that her children continued to lead by her example, and her children did. Six are still alive today. All three of her daughters received college degrees, with Mrs. Vonner earning an advanced degree in theology. Her brothers did not attend college but led successful lives. As the assistant general secretary for the United Methodist Women’s national office in New York City, Mrs. Vonner continues her mother’s work by advocating for women and social justice.

“Her legacy is still being carried on through her children in some form or fashion,” Mrs. Vonner said. “She’s left us that legacy so we have to carry it on.”

■ 1995 Liberty Bell Award for Community Service from the Smith County Bar Association
■ 2000 Women in Tyler, recognition for efforts in blazing the pioneer trail in Smith County
■ 2002 Selected 120 heroes of Tyler ISD
■ Past member Southern Christian Leadership Conference
■ Founding member, Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, appointed by the State Bar of Texas
■ Elected to precinct chairman, 1984
■ Delegate to county and state Democratic conventions, 1980, 1982, 1984
■ Founding member of East Texas Legal Services
■ Deputy Registrar, voter registration for Smith County
■ Election Judge, precinct 13
■ Member, Texas Task Force on Indigent Health Care, appointed by Gov. Mark White, 1983

At times, Mrs. Lee’s valiant approach frightened her daughter. Her no-nonsense style did not allow her to mince words.
“There were times that I felt like, ‘Wow, she is a troublemaker’ but that’s because I didn’t understand,” Mrs. Vonner said. “Now, after having my own children and seeing the disparities and having an understanding about racism, about classism and about sexism and all the other –isms, that I understand that she really was a trailblazer. She really was putting herself out there on the edge not for herself, but for the betterment of her people.”

Women like Mrs. Lee breathed life into civil rights movements. While images of male leadership dominated media, women also proved to be great leaders who provided a foundation for historic milestones.

“I think women always knew that, but it took society a while to catch up with that,” Mrs. Vonner said. “The reality is, if you look at any of these great movements, women were the gut, the heart of it.”



“I speak for poor people because I am poor and I know the pain. I get up and speak my peace no matter what. I’m just a sensitive person. I can spot things. I just hang in there and try to do what I can and God makes a way.” — Dorothy Lee after being recognized by the Tyler chapter of the NAACP in 1992

“As a member of the Bi-Racial Committee, she frequently visited with me, and I came to know her keen intelligence, uncompromising fidelity to her cause, and her greatness of spirit. Through all of the years that followed, I never saw her falter in her fervent quest for equality and equity for African-Americans. My words are inadequate, but the highest compliment I can give her is, she made the world a better place.” — The Honorable William Wayne Justice, senior U.S. district judge, following her death


5 Comments on Remembering Dorothy Lee: a civil rights leader ahead of her time

  1. Glad to know more about Dorothy Lee — an example of courage and character.


  2. Thank you for sharing her story. I will pass it on to my students next semester.


  3. Kevin Sharp // August 24, 2017 at 2:35 pm // Reply

    Maybe name a high school after her?


  4. Ms. Dillard; thank you so much for the beautiful article on one of Tyler’s amazing trailblazers. I can hear her powerful voice and that of her co-heart, the Late Ms. Velma Mosley. I can tell you that Ms. Lee loved all children. She wanted no child to experience hunger. However, she was serious about collecting the money at Pop Reece’s store. And she made sure you knew how to count your change when she returned it to you.

    I am sad that the involvement of adults in our community does not exist in that way any longer. We can take a lesson from those pioneers and trailblazers like the Late Ms. Dorothy Lee. She reached back to Ms. Minnie Mosley and others to teach the importance of being involved in your community. Not for glory, but because it was the right thing to do. Black men were involved; it was great to see black women leading the way. We were so proud of Ms. Lee, her accomplishments and many other great women who were role models from our tight knit community.

    You have inspired me today as I read your great work and reflected on our awesome history. Keep writing and keep up the great work of putting more East Texas Black History in print. You are brilliant Ms. Coshandra Dillard. Thanks. Sjm.


  5. Cecil J. Johnson // January 29, 2018 at 11:50 pm // Reply

    Mrs. Lee was a person who cared for everyone. When I had issues at my home I stayed at her home and there was no difference. She treated me the same as my mother treated me. We had a lot of parents battling for us but Dorothty Lee was at the forefront. Myself and Mrs. Lee had so many battles about how we were treated and how we were supposed to react and she told anybody that listen I was her child. Good Lady. Thanks Rodney and you know I love the Witcher family!!! Tessie Washington, Luberta Austin,Blanche Johnson, etc.


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