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Civil rights hero, Olympic boxer, to get historical marker in Botetourt County

1952 Olympic medal ceremonies
The XV Olympiad Official Report
Norvel Lee on the gold medal stand in Helsinki

A state historical marker goes up in Botetourt County Saturday, honoring an Olympic boxer who also won a critical civil rights case in the Virginia Supreme Court.

The name Norvel Lee may not be that familiar, but a biographer who chronicled his life says that might be a testament to his character.

Raised during the Jim Crow era, the Botetourt County native and Air Force Colonel was arrested in the late 1940’s for failing to give up his whites-only seat on a passenger train.

His case eventually made its way to the state's high court, which ruled in his favor.

“He was sitting in the white section of a very rural train, very sparsely populated train," biographer Ken Conklin said. "The prosecuting attorney said ‘why didn’t you just move back? And Norvel just looked at the guy, and said ‘I didn’t think it was necessary.”

Norvel Lee demonstrating
Ebony 2/1/1951
Norvel Lee demonstrating his technique

Conklin, who wrote the 2020 book, 'Norvel' said Lee won an Olympic gold medal in boxing at the 1952 games in Finland. He only had seven official matches before he was chosen for the 1948 Olympic team, becoming the dominant heavyweight amateur boxer in the Mid-Atlantic states for that period.

He was offered the chance to turn pro, but chose instead to further his education. Conklin says Lee was very humble, and didn’t tout his accomplishments.

“He played pinochle with a group of guys for 40 years every other Friday night," he said. "And I got to interview one of the players. Turned out to be – I was the one who told him about the civil rights case. He played pinochle with him his entire life, he never mentioned it to anybody.”

Lee, an Air Force Lt. Colonel, also had an accomplished military career. He died in 1992.

Some of Lee’s relatives are expected at Saturday’s state marker dedication on Route 220, outside the town of Eagle Rock.

Those wishing to attend are asked to meet at the Eagle Rock Library, located at 55 Eagles Nest Drive in Eagle Rock, at 1:45 p.m. A shuttle will be provided from there to the historical site on Route 220. More information from Botetourt County here

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.