Otis E. Lee Sr.

Age 90 Edmondson Village activist helped build the Alaskan highway and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

August 07, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

Otis E. Lee Sr., a retired railroader, World War II veteran and longtime Edmondson Village neighborhood activist, died Saturday of heart failure at Bon Secours Hospital. He was 90.

Mr. Lee was born in Whitestone, Va., and was raised in Bordentown, N.J., where he graduated from high school.

Mr. Lee served with the 95th Engineer Regiment of the Army Corps of Engineers from 1941 to 1945.

"We were segregated but proud," Mr. Lee said in a 2007 Maryland Public Television documentary that highlighted Marylanders who served in World War II. "Because whatever we were doing, we were doing for our country. I was a very proud dude to be fighting for my country."

In 1942, Mr. Lee was sent to Alaska with 3,600 other African-American soldiers to construct the 1,522-mile Alaskan or ALCAN highway.

"It was a matter of having a bunch of dumb black soldiers, not qualified, don't know how to do anything and nothing for them to do," Mr. Lee said in the MPT documentary. "So put them up there and let them cut a trail."

Mr. Lee was in charge of trucks, tanks, tractors and road-grading equipment.

"I was in charge of everything that rolled. ... It was also my job to teach men to drive, operate and care for this equipment," he told Donna Blasor-Bernhardt, author of Pioneer Road, published in 2004.

After the road was completed, he was sent to Europe, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

"I stepped over so many dead soldiers," he said in the MPT documentary. "Great big, young, healthy men, all dressed up, dead."

Mr. Lee, who attained the rank of staff sergeant, was proud of his service. "Somebody had to do it to prove to the world that they were wrong and we were not all dumb. And that we loved this country," he said

After the war, he worked as a Pullman Co. porter and later was a mail clerk for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from 1947 to 1967.

When he was working as a porter, Mr. Lee became acquainted with A. Philip Randolph, founder of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union with an international charter from the American Federation of Labor.

From 1967 until retiring in 1987, Mr. Lee was an accountant for what became the Chessie System.

A longtime resident of North Mount Olivet Lane, Mr. Lee was an active member and former president of the Carroll Improvement Association.

In 1998, Mr. Lee led the battle against Potts and Callahan Inc. after the city issued a permit to the Baltimore contractor to dump concrete, bricks, dirt, sand and other construction debris from demolished rowhouses into an abandoned Gwynns Falls quarry formerly owned by Harry T. Campbell Co.

"The whole community was up in arms over the proposal. Not only were there environmental concerns but also over increased truck traffic in the neighborhood," said Gregory L. Lewis, a Baltimore attorney, and longtime neighborhood resident.

"Mr Lee was adamant that this must be stopped. I remember we organized a demonstration at City Hall where we carried signs and chanted, 'Stop the Dump, Mayor Schmoke,'" he said. "As time went on, the City Council reversed the zoning change, and the whole thing fizzled out."

Mr. Lewis described his friend as "feisty" and always at the "forefront of what the association was involved with."

Antero Pietila, a former Sun editorial writer and reporter, is writing a book on the blockbusting of the late 1940s and 1950s.

"Otis Lee was a representative of a rapidly vanishing breed. He was among the first African-Americans to move to Edmondson Village in the mid-1950s, when that community changed from all-white to all-black in a single decade," said Mr. Pietila, now a columnist for The Examiner.

He said that Mr. Lee and the other original African-American homeowners who chose to stay in the neighborhood gave it a certain stability.

"Mr. Lee's house overlooked a field and woods that are part of the Gwynns Falls watershed. That's why he was so vocal about preventing dumping and pollution there," Mr. Pietila said. "He was a neighborhood activist with an energy level that put many younger people to shame."

Mr. Lewis recalled that his friend was thrilled when African-Americans began moving into the neighborhood.

"How elated he was that blacks could now go beyond the Edmondson Avenue bridge and buy homes on the top of the hill," Mr. Lewis said. "He had grown up in a Baltimore that was very restrictive, and to him, this was a big deal."

Mr. Lewis said his friend attended neighbors' funerals and gave "testimony to their lives." He also helped organize an annual dinner for residents during the Christmas season.

"A sense of celebrating community and their accomplishments was very important to him," he said. "He truly was a great man."

A longtime Democrat, Mr. Lee made numerous unsuccessful bids for City Council and the House of Delegates. He was also a member of the Southwestern District Police Community Relations Council for nearly 40 years.

Mr. Lee enjoyed visiting a family home in Lancaster County, Va., where he liked to fish on the nearby Rappahannock River.

He was a member of Village Baptist Church.

Services for Mr. Lee will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the March Funeral Home, 4300 Wabash Ave.

Surviving are his wife of 51 years, the former Mary Lee Oliver; a son, Otis E. Lee Jr. of Baltimore; a daughter, Althea Franklin of Westminster; and a granddaughter.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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