Joseph E. Lee

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As everyone knows (especially here in D.C.), whenever there is a change in presidential administration, there’s a big turnover in political staff jobs. A new president means lots of new job openings, new opportunities.

Most of the time, the turnover has nothing to do with the ability of the staff person being replaced, but it has everything to do with his or her political affiliation. This was the case with today’s subject, Joseph E. Lee.

Joseph E. Lee, about 1900. Source: FloridaMemory.com

Joseph E. Lee, about 1900. Source: FloridaMemory.com

Lee was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1849, and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. He studied both law and ministry, and graduated with degrees in both from Howard in 1873. That same year, moved to Jacksonville, Florida. He was admitted to the bar and became Jacksonville’s first African-American lawyer.

According to FloridaMemory.com:

“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.”

Lee was, without a doubt, intelligent and capable, but he faced incredible challenges from the Florida political machine.

As mentioned in the previous post, in 1912, Joe Lee held one of the most important (and highest paid) federal jobs in Florida: Internal Revenue Collector. There were no reported problems with his job performance; the problem was that he was an African American in a plum patronage position.

A large article featuring Joe Lee by John Stillman, local Pensacola Republican, on Joe Lee. Source: The Pensacola Journal, October 20, 1912

A large article featuring Joe Lee by John Stillman, local Pensacola Republican, on Joe Lee. Source: The Pensacola Journal, October 20, 1912

A snippet of the large article, with Stillman explaining Joe Lee's appointment as internal revenue collector. Source: The Pensacola Journal, October 20, 1912.

A snippet of the large article, with Stillman explaining Joe Lee’s appointment as internal revenue collector. Source: The Pensacola Journal, October 20, 1912.

As mentioned in the previous post, Joe Lee was removed from office by June, 1913. However, there were other Republican patronage officeholders left to finish their terms, as Woodrow Wilson preferred to keep capable appointees in office. Had Lee not been African-American, I feel certain he would have remained until his term was up.

Joe Lee is definitely one of those interesting individuals I’ve come across in Emmett’s research that deserve their own biography.

And John Stillman?

He committed suicide less than a year after his essay.

February 15, 1913. Editorial page, The Pensacola Journal. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

February 15, 1913. Editorial page, The Pensacola Journal. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

 


I doubt Emmett had much interaction with Joe Lee, either in his career as a District Attorney or as Congressman. Emmett worked in the U.S. Customs House building in Pensacola during the time Lee was the internal revenue collector, so there is a chance they saw each other. Also, Lee wasn’t always in Pensacola; his home base was Jacksonville.

The Customs House today.

The Customs House today. Emmett’s office was on either the third or fourth floor.

If you take a look at the Florida Memory link, here, be sure to read the comments section. In there, one of the readers says she found Joe Lee’s personal calling card book in a set of antique books she purchased! Isn’t that great? There’s replies from two individuals, one of whom is the founder of the Joe E. Lee Republican Club, who’d like to see that amazing artifact!

When I see this kind of feedback, it gives me hope that I’ll uncover Emmett’s long-lost scrapbooks. I still think they are out there, somewhere.

 

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Freshman Mistake

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On April 7, 1913, Emmett Wilson was sworn in as the youngest representative from Florida’s Third Congressional District, and the youngest congressman in the United States.

Emmett knew that upon taking office, he was expected to resolve several pressing issues, namely:

  • Reopening the Pensacola Naval Station.
  • Procuring funding to renovate the U.S. Customs House in Pensacola.
  • Replacing Internal Revenue Collector and Republican Joe Lee with a Democrat.

Emmett also knew that the party bosses were going to be watching him closely. There were stories that he was too young and inexperienced to get anything done; that he was unreliable — he drank too much, and would disappear for days. This was Emmett’s moment to prove the rumors false.

Of the three main issues before him, the one he could probably resolve quickly was the removal of Joe Lee. But there were a few problems: Woodrow Wilson preferred to allow political appointees from the previous administration to finish their term, and not to boot them unceremoniously, especially if they had been doing a decent job. The state party bosses didn’t care: They wanted a Democrat tax collector ASAP.

The other problem was that Emmett was unknown in Washington. If he was going to be successful removing Joe Lee, he’d have to make his case directly with the political elite. So, why not go directly to the top? The party bosses would be impressed. He’d also show he was comfortable dealing with the Washington, D.C. political elite.

Emmett calls on President Woodrow Wilson literally within hours of being sworn in, to do the bidding of the part bosses. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 10, 1913, page 1.

Emmett calls on President Woodrow Wilson literally within hours of being sworn in, to do the bidding of the party bosses. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 10, 1913, page 1.

The last sentence in the clip, above, is important.

According to several articles published in the weeks after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in (on March 4, 1913), the president was quite specific in a message to congress that he was not interested in resolving patronage issues. He said that those wishing to recommend individuals for positions were to go through the proper channels, and wait their turn for review. He was too busy with important matters of state.

Senator Duncan Fletcher. Source: www.old-picture.com

Senator Duncan Fletcher. Source: http://www.old-picture.com

But, our Emmett was anxious and ambitious. I think he missed this directive in the excitement of moving to Washington, D.C., in being feted and congratulated in the weeks leading up to his own swearing-in ceremony.

Literally within hours after being sworn-in, Emmett secured a meeting with Woodrow Wilson to discuss the issues of his district. How he got an appointment so quickly is a good question; I would guess that Senator Duncan Fletcher went to bat for Emmett on this one. I wouldn’t be surprised; Fletcher and Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, were longtime close friends.

According to another article I have about this meeting, Woodrow listened politely to what Emmett had to say about removing Joe Lee, but the president only gave Emmett a tight-lipped smile, thanked him for visiting him that afternoon, and wished him a good day.

It was as Emmett was ushered out of the Oval Office that it either dawned on him what happened — or, more likely — one of Woodrow Wilson’s aides reminded him (as he was leaving) of the president’s directive regarding patronage requests.

I wonder what it was like for Emmett, walking back to the Cannon House Office Building, kicking himself all the way up Capitol Hill? I’d like to have seen that.

Despite the freshman goof-up, Woodrow Wilson didn’t hold it against Emmett. In fact, he liked Emmett, and used to call him “Cousin Emmett” whenever he visited the White House. (They weren’t related.) Maybe the president thought: “Emmett’s a good man; he’s new. I remember what it was like being the new kid on the block, wanting to make a good impression.”

Hayes Lewis was appointed collector in place of Joe Lee within a few weeks of his meeting with Emmett at the White House.

Lee out, Lewis in. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 25, 1913, p.1

Lee out, Lewis in. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 25, 1913, p.1

Joseph E. Lee has an interesting story, and one worthy of a biography. I’ll share his story in the next blog installment.