Recently, a memorial service honoring the great Consuela Lee was held at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Ms. Lee, a consummate musician, civil rights activist and educator, died last Dec. 26 in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of 83.
Consuela Lee was one of this nation’s most illustrious citizens. First, she was a musician’s musician, performing at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Lincoln Center, the Newport Jazz Festival and many other distinguished venues. Bill Lee, her brother and the father of filmmaker Spike Lee, called “the world’s great musician.” She was among the best.
But she was so much more than a performer. Her grandfather, William J. Edwards, founded the Snow Hill Institute 1893 for black children in Alabama. Edwards was a student of Booker T. Washington, who taught his students to go back home and elevate the social status of black people through education and vocational training. The thread is shorter we think!
The school closed due to a desegregation edict in Alabama, Consuela Lee returned to revitalize the institution in 1980. She served as its artistic director for almost 25 years. Over that time, she fought many battles, not only over education and bringing arts to the students, but a white attempt to take money by exploiting timber on the school’s black-owned property. She determined “there is a carefully planned death sentence for black children” in Alabama.
At the New York memorial service, a who’s who of great musicians were assembled and performed. They included Bill Lee’s Bass Violin Choir; pianist Harold Mayburn; vocalist Melba Joyce; and bassist Richard Davis. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark did a tribute, while the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts officiated.
Living in New York City, we have the privilege to be included in the presence of greatness. People like Consuela Lee achieved that greatness in spades. It is enough to make you want practice your craft every day. Life is rich, exciting and full of surprises. I am always at a loss of what to say to someone who says they are bored.
Whether you knew Consuela Lee or not, all of our lives were impacted by her presence and great legacy. She made a significant difference. We should aspire to do the same.