Jacksonville’s First African-American Lawyer: Joseph E. Lee

Drawn portrait of Joseph E. Lee (circa 1890s).

Drawn portrait of Joseph E. Lee (circa 1890s).

Joseph E. Lee was one of the most influential African-American men in Florida during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For over four decades, Lee worked as a public servant, acting at various times as a state legislator, a lawyer, federal customs collector, and educator.

Joseph E. Lee (circa 1900s).

Joseph E. Lee (circa 1900s).

Lee was born in Philadelphia in 1849, and graduated from Howard University with a law degree in 1873. He moved to Florida that same year and was admitted to the bar, making him the first African-American lawyer in Jacksonville, and one of the first in the state. He served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1875 to 1879, and in the State Senate from 1881 to 1882. In April 1888, Lee was elected Municipal Judge of Jacksonville, the first African-American to have this honor. Around this time he also served as the dean of the law department of Edward Waters College, an African-American institute of higher learning formed in 1866 to educate freed former slaves. Lee would remain a trustee of the college for over thirty years.

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville (circa 1889).

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville (circa 1889).

Joseph Lee also participated in state and local politics, serving as Chairman of the Duval County Republican Party and secretary of the party’s statewide organization for nearly forty years. The Joseph E. Lee Papers housed at the State Archives of Florida (Collection M86-027) contain dozens of letters from around the state asking for Lee’s counsel on matters regarding political strategy. The two letters below pertain to a particularly dramatic situation in 1916, in which the Democratic vote for the governorship of Florida was split between two candidates, Sidney J. Catts and William V. Knott. Republicans hoped that with the Democratic vote divided as it was during the primary, the Republican candidate, George W. Allen, would have a good chance of winning the general election. Republicans were almost never elected to statewide offices during this period, as their African-American supporters were generally restricted from voting, and white voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. In the first letter, John Edwards of DeLand asks Lee how he should advise the Republican voters of his county since their candidate, Allen, was reputed to be from the “lily-white” faction of the party that favored a conservative approach to African-American civil rights. In the second letter, Lee replies that despite Allen’s positions in this regard, he would be voting the entire Republican ticket, Allen included, and he hoped the Republicans of DeLand would do the same.

Letter from John Edwards to Joseph E. Lee, Oct. 24th, 1916

Letter from John Edwards to Joseph E. Lee, Oct. 24th, 1916

Letter from Joseph E. Lee to John Edwards of DeLand, Oct. 31st, 1916.

Letter from Joseph E. Lee to John Edwards of DeLand, Oct. 31st, 1916.

Joseph E. Lee died March 25, 1920, but his leadership was remembered in a number of lasting tributes. Civil rights leaders James Weldon Johnson and A. Phillip Randolph both remembered Lee as having been a memorable influence on their lives, and to this day a Joseph E. Lee Republican Club still operates in Jacksonville.

Who are the leading lights from your community or county? Search Florida Memory to find photos and documents of other great Floridians like Joseph E. Lee.

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8 thoughts on “Jacksonville’s First African-American Lawyer: Joseph E. Lee

  1. Remembering and honoring Stetson Kennedy also.
    The city of Jacksonville is finally removing the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the high school. Slow, slow progress.

  2. What’s good about removing the name Nathan Bedford Forrest from the high school….it is still history and you can not change history….if you graduated from the school when it was Nathan Bedford Forrest that is still the name for you…….he was a great leader to some…..

  3. I purchased a lot of antique books at a local auction house. Included in this lot, is Mr. Joseph E Lee’s personal calling card book with many cards to the late 1800.’s.Included also other interesting artifacts. Wondering ifvthere is a value to this, and with whom I could each out to, to share with family or historical society. An article from newspaper regarding his memorial,as he was Jacksonville’s first black lawyer. Please help me contact the proper channel.
    Thanks,
    Susan Duckworth

    • Greetings Ms. Duckworth,

      I am the curator for the Ritz Theatre and Museum in downtown Jacksonville, FL. I am interested in the artifacts you have and would love to have an opportunity to see them and to discuss what your plans are for the materials. Please contact me at 904.807.2015.

      Thank you,

      Yuwnus Asami

      ritzjacksonville.com

  4. I would be very interested Ms Duckworth. My name is Lawrence Jefferson and I am one of the founders of the Joseph E. Lee Republican Club and served as it’s first president. I can be reached at 904 699-4002. You can also reach the club on Facebook and Linked In.

    • Greetings Mr. Jefferson,

      I was wondering if you the Joseph E. Lee REpublican Club has heard from Ms. Duckworth in reference to the artifacts she has/had in her possession.

      Yuwnus Asami

      Ritz Theatre and Museum, Curator
      ritzjacksonville.com

      904.807.2015

  5. Hello Guys,

    I have memories with the Lee’s, Lewis, Browns, Dr. Schell, Dr. Childs, A.L.Lewis, Blackies, The Ritz, Roosevelt and the Strand. Lackawanna, Springfield, LA Villa, New Berlin, Berry’s Ice Cream, Milligans, Mc Corey ‘ s 5$ dime, lil Talbot Island, Clara White Mission, and the The Greats Big Beth El, Mt. Arat, and Mt Zion and Evergreen Baptist, Kozy Korner, Curly Q ‘ s from the Roosevelt Grill, Sepia Magazine. Singleton BBQ,
    Barnes Grocery, A&P, Beaver Street Viaduct, Moses the butcher and fishman. Workman’s Deli, pineapple honey drippers with real pineapple. Mary Jane candies and saddle oxfords, Reverend Ike and Rabbit. Ashley Street shenanigans and the Elks Club, Parades on Hogan and Baker Shoes, Morrison Cafeteria, Afro American Heritage Life Insurance company. Fernandina Beach, American Beach. The Johnson man.

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