Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Student Leadership and Achievement

BOND: You mentioned a moment ago being President of the Black Student Union at Mills, but go back to high school and even before then. Did you exercise leadership roles in student council, student government, that kind of thing? Or other groups?

LEE: Oh, yeah. In grammar school, in our neighborhood, of course, I started the El Paso Girls, Alamogordo Girls Club, so we had a community club of girls in our neighborhood. At Catholic school, St. Joseph's, I was in the drill team and cheerleader and, of course, being the only the African American there I was kind of like leading the pack and all. And so in grammar school, and of course, I tried to get all A's and go to the head of the class and I tried to be the model student, which sort of put me in leadership positions within the school.

When I was in high school and junior high, I became part of the Ephesians Honor Society. I was the first African American cheerleader at San Fernando High School, thanks to the NAACP and John Mance.

BOND: Oh, sure, John Mance.

LEE: My first job was with the credit union where he worked and he was part of the NAACP, and the NAACP fought to make sure that the rules that governed the election of cheerleaders were changed so I'd have an opportunity to try out for it, and I won. So I was the first black cheerleader at San Fernando High School. I won Bank of America Music Scholarship, the Rotary Music Scholarship when I graduated, and I was in the Honor Society and, you know, so I was kind of like — I was the columnist for our senior class for the newspaper, ValVisions, and so every — I think I was Class Secretary, so, you know, I was kind of doing stuff in high school also.

BOND: And all of this stuff — in grade school and high school and college — is there ever a time when you, not consciously perhaps, but think to yourself, "I am a leader. I influence other people, other people follow in what I do. I set the pace"? Did you ever — ?

LEE: It wasn't as a leader. I can remember when I left El Paso, Texas, and I kept diaries. Every day I wrote a diary until I was about eighteen and I said that day when I was leaving El Paso, I said, you know, "Things are so bad for black people, I've got to somehow do something to help my people. I said I don't know what it is." This is when I'm thirteen years old. I said, "I have no idea I'm going to do, but I can't allow this country to keep doing what it's doing to my people," and I wrote that in my diary in June of 1960, and when I became the first black cheerleader at San Fernando High, everybody was really happy and said, "Oh, God, now others can follow in your footsteps," and you know, so it was kind of like the word on the street, but I just said, "Oh, good, now other people can have this same opportunity." Or when I was put into the, whatever, the Honor Society, I don't know if there were any other African Americans in it, but it was always like, "Oh, good, now somebody else can do this." When I became part of the drill teams, like, "Oh, good, now there're more African Americans can get into the drill team," so it was always kind of like — when I was playing the piano at my graduation, I said, "Gee, I hope somebody black next year plays the piano, too." You know, so it was kind of that, just always hoping that it's not just me.

BOND: At least some consciousness of what you were achieving, these firsts, that you're achieving are making the way for there to be a second and a third and a fourth and —

LEE: Yeah. That's kind of where my head was and still is, but I never saw myself as being a leader.