Botetourt Olympian getting posthumous recognition for legacy

Published: Feb. 28, 2022 at 6:57 PM EST
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BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - At some point the last few years, local writer Ken Conklin found the story of Norvel Lee. Or was it that the story of Norvel Lee found him?

“Oh, that’s a great question!” Questions are what started Conklin on a quest he never anticipated.

The first of many questions was: Who was Norvel Lee?

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After reading a brief Fincastle Herald article about Botetourt County’s native son in 2016 to coincide with the Rio Olympics, Conklin wanted to know more.

“And I did some research and really the rest is history,” he said. “It sent me on the journey of a lifetime.”

What Conklin found during his online research, initially, wasn’t a whole lot. What he did find was a Boxing Along the Beltway blog post. And within that blog post, a comment from a woman who said she was a granddaughter of Norvel Lee.

Conklin, curious, reached out. And that’s when the journey really began. That journey included drives just 30 minutes from his own Botetourt County home to Gala, the birthplace of Norvel Lee.

Lee was born in 1924 to a family whose life centered around farm work, the railroad and the Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church. He attended the Academy Hill School for Negroes in Fincastle, earning excellent grades. After graduating, he entered the military and earned his wings as a Tuskegee airmen.

He would have taken to the skies over the Pacific were it not for a pronounced stammer.

Conklin’s journey then took him to Washington, D.C.

At war’s end, Lee enrolled at Howard University, where his boxing hobby took on a competitive edge.

“And he excelled at it and soon became the dominant heavyweight champion on the east coast,” Conklin explained. [He] made the 1948 Olympic team and went to London and was an alternate on that team.”

The following year, Lee was back in Virginia, traveling between family and school. He was arrested for refusing to sit in the colored section of the train car.

“When the prosecutor asked him why he did that, why did he not follow the instructions? And he just looked at him and he said, “I didn’t think that was necessary,” said Conklin, reciting a line from a court transcript.

He appealed with the help of the NAACP, taking the case all the way to Virginia’s Supreme Court, which eventually overturned his conviction on the grounds that the state could not enforce segregation laws on a local train if a passenger held a ticket for interstate travel.

It’s part of his legacy his granddaughter, Danielle Anderson, calls honorable.

“That statement says a lot about him,” she said. “It’s not confrontational. It’s very simple. But it’s very impactful. That was him.”

His impact didn’t stop there. In 1952 Lee was the first Black Virginian to win Olympic gold at the Helsinki Olympic Games. Conklin said Lee decided not to pursue a professional career in boxing after that - although he was offered $10,000 to go pro.

“But he didn’t think that was the right thing to do,” Conklin explained. “He famously said, ‘I want to make an honest dollar.’ And that was a quote from one of the newspaper articles.”

But his life was still full of adventure. He went on a goodwill trip to Mali with the American ambassador who was his Howard French teacher. He attended inaugural balls. He coached boxing and worked with the Special Olympics.

He went on to be a teacher and mentor to many young people in the greater Washington, D.C. area. He married, had children, and played pinochle with the same group of guys for 40 years.

“The story screamed at me,” Conklin said. “It’s the only thing I can say.”

Conklin was so taken with the life of Norvel Lee and how little was broadly known about it that he wrote a book. Not long after, local historian (and former Roanoke City Mayor) Nelson Harris got involved.

“From civil rights to Olympian to educator, coach,” he said, “I mean it’s a pretty well-lived life.”

Harris applied for a historical marker in the County for Norvel Lee which was granted in December.

“I hope that it will allow especially the people in Botetourt County to realize they have a native son that did tremendous things,” Harris said.

And just this month, the General Assembly passed a bill to name a portion of Route 220 for Norvel Lee. It now awaits the governor’s signature.

It’s the recognition Lee never saw in life. But that Conklin said is never too late.

“It’s an example to anybody that’s facing obstacles that they can, you know, just keep moving forward.”

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