Community's voice Lena Lee: The president of Madison Park Community Association is known for being a fighter for her city neighborhood, where she has lived since 1940.

February 06, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Lena K. Lee doesn't consider herself a late bloomer; she's been in full blossom for nearly all of her 89 years.

If anything, she's slowing down. She no longer belongs to a dozen or so professional and social organizations. "It's only about four now," she says. "That seems to be enough.

She's the president of the Madison Park Neighborhood Improvement Association -- a small community below North Avenue and just west of Bolton Hill -- a teacher, attorney, businesswoman and former member of the House of Delegates, to which she was elected in 1967 at 60 and where she served for 15 years.

Madison Park receives most of her attention these days. The neighborhood has stately rowhouses, clean streets, relatively low crime and watchdog "Lena" who intends to keep it that way.

"We know our problems here: they are crime, prostitution and dope," says Ms. Lee, a diminutive woman with a strong voice, a keen memory and commanding presence. "We've got this neighborhood settled down now. People know what we're not going to accept.

"But we just do what black people have always done -- keep struggling and keep fighting."

Since 1940, Ms. Lee has lived on Madison Avenue, and since 1940, she has fought for its upkeep: keep the alleys clear; make sure area streetlights stay lighted; Keep on the city about rodent problems; make sure residents stay within the guidelines for maintaining their homes.

She has seen Madison Park change from a largely Jewish community to a predominantly black population; from homeowners to renters to mostly homeowners again; from petty crime to drug problems to prostitution.

"I'm always busy," she says. "I don't do many frivolous things."

So important are Ms. Lee's contributions to her community that the Masons of Prince Hall Grand Lodge in West Baltimore decided to throw a tribute for her last month. Wiped out by the blizzard, the event is rescheduled for March 24 at the Masonic Temple at Eutaw Place and Lanvale Street.

Leslie King Hammond, an area resident for 20 years, said nothing is unattainable for Ms. Lee.

"When she wants something, she really goes after it," Ms. Hammond says. "But what she wants is not unreasonable -- it's just what it takes to live in a safe community. All I know is that when Lena calls a meeting, everybody shows up -- including the Central District police. It's easier than getting beat up for why you didn't show up."

Sgt. Kirk Fleet of Central District says Ms. Lee is not the type to ignore any inconsistency in Madison Park.

"Some people let things sit for a month; she don't play that," Sergeant Fleet says. "Whether it's a car parked too long or criminal activity, she don't play that."

For example, a rental truck once was parked for too long in her block.

Ms. Lee had Sergeant Fleet call several rental agencies to find who rented it and why it was there for so long.

But involvement in the Madison Park community is only part of Ms. Lee's world, which for the past six decades has read like a string of firsts or near-firsts:

* One of the first black women elected to the House of Delegates.

* Among the first black female graduates from the University of Maryland law school.

* First black member of the American Federation of Teachers, which later became AFL/CIO Teachers' Union.

* First woman commissioner of the city's Urban Renewal and Housing Commission.

Ms. Lee received her bachelor's degree from Morgan State College (now university), master's degree from New York University and law degree from the University of Maryland. She had wanted to receive her master's degree from the University of Maryland, but blacks were not accepted when she applied in the early 1940s.

"They didn't allow blacks, but they paid for you to go somewhere to school," she says. "Now does that make any sense? No." So she commuted to New York on the train on weekends for her schooling. "They paid your train fare and everything else but wouldn't let you go to their school."

The University of Maryland began admitting blacks in 1947, shortly before she entered its law school.

Judge Paul A. Smith of the city Circuit Court met Ms. Lee during the 1960s, when no black judges sat on the court. That was one of her personal battles that she fought to remedy.

"She was a mover and shaker," he says. "She fought real hard to convince the system as it existed at that time to put African-Americans on the bench. She literally forced the establishment to see the competency and value of African-Americans."

Leonard Briscoe, her former law partner and a retired Juvenile Court judge, says she once defended a client in a murder trial against seemingly insurmountable odds. Their client had fatally shot another man from the window of a two-story West Baltimore house. Throughout the trial, Ms. Lee mesmerized the jury with oratory.

"And they agreed with her," Mr. Briscoe says. "You don't get too many people shot out of a second-story window and then get acquitted on self-defense. The prosecutor was amazed and dumbfounded. But that was Lena, fighting as always."

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