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Hero Unveiled

Tom Lee gets new monument in the park that bears his name.



The legacy of Tom Lee -- the man who saved 32 passengers of a sinking steamboat the night of May 8, 1925 -- is central to the city's lore. His descendants, however, felt that the obelisk erected in his honor in 1954 failed to capture the humanity of the rescue.

Lee's great-great-niece Carlita Nealy-Hale, 32, explains, "What they had down there before was just his name and something you'd see in a cemetery. His face or his body wasn't on it."

Last week, the city unveiled an evocative new monument that depicts Lee in his boat, extending his arm to rescue a drowning man.

The old monument bears an inscription describing Lee as "a very worthy negro ... but he has a finer monument than this -- an invisible one." This engraving summarizes the family's motivation to upgrade the memorial.

Nealy-Hale's husband Miguel Hale, 33, says, "To me, I feel like they covered up his race. If that was strong enough history for them to name a park after him, it should have been detailed."

Nealy-Hale's sister, Charmeal Nealy-Alexander, 36, adds, "I understand back then he was seen as one of the worthy negros of the time, but I'm sure there were others. They wanted to separate him, and he may not have agreed with that."

Lee died of prostate cancer two years prior to the old monument going up.

Charmeal and Carlita's late father, Herbert James Nealy, sought greater recognition for Lee, his grandmother's brother. After Nealy passed away in 1991, his daughters continued the fight.

"Even in this day and time, there was a lot of negative vibes against this," Hale says. "Mayor Herenton said he didn't want anything to do with it. They've had Memphis In May [at Tom Lee Park] but never included his relatives."

Both women, born and raised in Memphis, relocated in the past six years but continued their campaign.

"The original statue broke, so that showed us it was time," says Nealy-Hale.

She credits city council members Barbara Swearengen Holt and Ricky Peete with pushing the financing of the new monument. The Riverfront Development Corporation oversaw the project, and commissioned artist David Clark for the work.

The new statue signifies "big change in Memphis," says Hale. "You can't turn your head from it. You get a bigger picture of Tom Lee."

"When you look at that statue, you know Tom Lee was a black man," Nealy-Hales says.

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