BETHLEHEM, PA - Some might describe Esther Lee as captivating...
"I’m just an average," Esther Lee says, "I’ll change from normal to average, female."
The 86 year old Bethlehem, Pennsylvania woman is known for a few things around here but being average might not be one of them. She’s recognized for her activism; "People meet me on the street and they ask me to continue doing what I’m doing. So it’s not going unnoticed. I don’t make an issue of it but the work is not going unnoticed. "
Her sense of humor; "Now this hat I can easily wear to a funeral and I smile at funerals too. You don’t have to cry everywhere and make a fool of yourself."
And her dozens of hats.
PBS39 News Tonight Reporter, K.C. Lopez asks, "Do you repeat? Right, so if you have Monday through Sunday, are you going to wear the same hat twice in a week?"
"No, I try not to," explains Lee, "Well, I do have weekday hats that I will wear. I could wear that one. If I’m going to church or going to some kind of program, a community event, I’ll strut."
The local activist has worn hats since she was a young girl. Her collection now has upwards of 75 headpieces. Each lid, tied to a place or person; "It reminds me of the Queen of England and it takes me back to my great grandfather who was English. So that’s my English roots."
Sometimes it’s a memory; "I wore this when they honored me at the high school graduation as a community person at Liberty High School."
Or a mood; "This one to me you look kind of mysterious," notices Lopez, "So maybe Esther doesn’t want to talk today so she’s going to wear this hat." "It could be," replies Lee, "absolutely. "
As Black History Month begins this February, it’s clear this South Bethlehem native has worn many hats over the years; at one time, it was that of a talk show host here at PBS39, for many decades, it was a wife’s, still today, it’s a mother’s and local NAACP president’s.
"Other women get hats but they’re not like my hats," she says.
And although she never attended a day of college, Lee has always worn the hat of both an educator and a student. The mother oftwo became the first African American woman elected to a school board here in the Lehigh Valley in 1971.
"People were ecstatic, " Lee recalls, "There had to be 300 or more people in that banquet hall and I remember this one minister coming in, my husband and I came to the door and he grabbed me and said, come on you have to make a speech! I said, a speech for what, what are we talking about? I was unmoved by what had happened. I didn’t feel what the community felt. You know, to me, I had won an election. For them, as a black woman, I had done more. You know, I can understand it more now."
From a school director’s hat to a working woman’s hat, she joined the workforce full-time for a dry-cleaner who took a chance on the young woman in a city struggling with the racial divide; "I checked in the clothes, I learned how to check them in and out, wait at the counter; which was a challenge for that owner because even then, you have to remember we’re in Bethlehem and it was racist and he knew it, that he’d tend to lose business because I would be working at his front counter. But he took it on and I did too and I knew it, I was very open to what was going on but we got through that. "
So when the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, things changed. She went on to work as a telephone operator and secretary. But as Lee’s passion for civil rights grew, so did her collection of head-wear.
"My husband’s aunt was graduating from, at that time it was Broughal High School," Lee tells Lopez, "She was to be the valedictorian, could not be because she was colored. We have found her speech in her trunk. Can you imagine that because she was, as they called it, colored, she could not give her speech. Those same things permeated Bethlehem most of its historical life. After that, it was the Martin Luther King holiday. City Hall and the school district, neither of them honored the holiday and for years we went and protested outside of the administration office for the school district."
Today, Esther Lee makes sure to keep important issues top of mind. And so when new challenges arise, her thinking cap is never too far.
"I’ve worked night and day just thinking about how we can combat or help someone combat their attitudes," explains Lee, "and help them be more subjective, to listen."
Esther Lee knows life can get tough, but this community knows, she’s tougher. A history like hers would prepare anyone for whatever lays a-head.
Got a news tip? Email K.C. at KCLopez@WLVT.org