Monday, August 17, 2020

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon: Trailblazing Woman

Note: This was a speech I delivered on Feb. 29, 2020, as part of Trailblazing African American Women of Coastal Georgia, a program presented by The Ashantilly Center at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church and Parish Hall. -- MNJ

In my former life, as a newspaper journalist, I wrote a Family column that was published weekly with my picture. So, when Black History Month rolled around, I was bombarded with calls to speak at churches, civic groups, and schools.

The schools were my favorite because I actually loved the challenge of trying to hold the attention of squirming elementary schoolchildren or engaging with middle or high school students who probably would rather be somewhere else.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon
Elizabeth Elaine Lemon
I would often talk about family history, genealogy, one of my passions. And I would explain to them that we all have heroes within the branches of our family trees.

During Black History Month we often celebrate people who are larger than life household names – Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman … Malcolm X and George Washington Carver … and Frederick Douglass.

But many of the heroes in our families and in our communities are of the unsung variety, the ones who worked behind the scenes, and laid the foundation for others to build upon.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon is one of those heroes.

She was born August 4, 1904, on Sapelo Island, Georgia, the daughter of Thomas Lemon and Lula Walker Lemon.

Her family – her parents and brothers and sisters -- called her “Bell.”

Bell’s early childhood, the early 1900s, was a time of changes on Sapelo Island. The land that was once dominated by the Spalding family, the island’s last major plantation owners, was purchased by Howard Coffin, a Detroit auto man. Coffin moved to the island and rebuilt the former Spalding “Big House,” transforming its tabby skeleton into a beautiful Mediterranean-style estate.

The black people on Sapelo included the formerly enslaved and their children and grandchildren. Many people on Sapelo worked for Howard Coffin performing the same tasks they or their ancestors had performed during slavery – cooking, cleaning, tending to the cows in the dairy or the flowers in the greenhouse.

Bell would have undoubtedly heard stories about her grandfather, James Lemon, who was born in 1828. He was one of several enslaved men on Sapelo who ran away and joined the Union Army during the Civil War. He served in Company A of the 33rd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry.

His wife, Jane Cummings Lemon, ran away, too, along with other enslaved people, when the Spalding family evacuated Sapelo Island ahead of Union troops. According to James Lemon’s pension records, he was granted special permission to leave the war to return to Sapelo Island to check on his wife.

Young Bell would have no doubt heard these stories and many more, and probably would have been aware of and experienced the injustice of Jim Crow and the racism always present in black people’s lives long after slavery ended.

But she also would have witnessed what many little black girls and boys saw in the early 1900s all across America … black people making a way out of no way, creating opportunities for themselves, building communities, working together in churches, civic organizations, fraternal organizations, working as entrepreneurs and skilled craftsmen.

Bell would have known the value of education with the island school playing a vital role in developing strong minds and character in children who would grow up in a segregated world that did not value their worth.

Bell described her early education in an interview with genealogist Mae Ruth Green in the early 1980s.

“The children learned phonics and had to memorize poetry. In fact,” she said, “most of the poetry I know now, I learned on Sapelo Island.”

Bell attended grades one through five on Sapelo Island, and then continued her education at St. Athanasius Episcopal School in Brunswick. In the summers, she said she would scrape up bus fare to go to Savannah in search of work cleaning homes and doing other tasks for families.

“I would not spend more than a dime of my precious earnings for food,” she said. “A nickel glass of jelly and a five-cent loaf of bread made very good eating while I was looking for work. A couple of slices of bread and a glass of water made a good meal, and when the jelly was added, I had a party!”

In 1921, Bell – who called herself Elaine – graduated with honors from St. Athanasius, and then made her way north to study teaching at Atlanta University Normal School.

“When I was going to Atlanta University my shoes wore out … the soles went completely and the outer rim spread like a moccasin’s mouth,” she said. “When students made fun of my feet, I held my head high and craned my neck to peer into the distance to see what was giving them so much fun.”  

She graduated from Atlanta University, raggedy shoes and all, and was Salutatorian of her class.

Her early teaching career included six years (1923-1929) in the public schools of Winston-Salem, N.C. While teaching in North Carolina, she would go to New York City during the summers to work for a family. She made more money in the summer in New York than she did teaching school in North Carolina.

“I bought clothes, shoes, hats, luggage, and silk underwear, and sent money home to Sapelo, as much as $40 at a time,” she said. She paid for her sister Kate’s sewing lessons and began saving to buy a new home.

She went back to school, this time in Indiana, and in 1930 earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and Science from Ball State Teachers College (now known as Ball State University) in Muncie, Indiana. That same year, she returned to Atlanta to join the faculty of a groundbreaking experiment in education known as Atlanta University Laboratory School.

Atlanta University Laboratory School opened in September of 1930. The school combined the college preparatory programs of Spelman College, Morehouse College and Atlanta University.

The secondary school students took classes in Giles Hall on the Spelman campus.

Elementary school children attended classes at Oglethorpe School which was on the Atlanta University campus.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon served as the Teaching Principal of the laboratory elementary school, from 1930-1943.

The philosophy of the progressive school included independent study with a social-problems approach, and the belief that students should have a role in choosing the topics to be studied and help plan class projects. The school was governed by collaboration or a democratic process amongst the faculty members, who met weekly, as well as the students.

The school attracted talented faculty and gifted students who often received state and national recognition in the areas of science and writing.

In an article published in The New York Age in 1931, Atlanta University president, John Hope, described the purpose of the laboratory school.

“It’s purpose is not primarily to give students in the Department of Education practice in teaching,” he said. Rather, it is to “provide them with an opportunity to observe good teaching and its results.”

One of the most distinguished teachers was artist and Harvard graduate Hale Woodruff, who was the chair of the Art Department

One of the most distinguished students – although he was only in the seventh grade at the time -- was an overachiever named Martin Luther King, Jr. (Young Martin, by the way, would ultimately skip ninth-grade and finish his high school years at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, before entering Morehouse College at age 15.)

Elaine Lemon, who was one of Martin Luther King’s teachers, had a personal teaching style that involved getting outside and going places. In addition to reading, she encouraged learning through experimentation and dramatization.

The Atlanta University Laboratory School had its critics. Renowned author, sociologist, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was on the faculty of Atlanta University, viewed the program with some skepticism, primarily because he felt the school was understaffed and underfunded. In addition, the student population did not reflect the socioeconomic and educational diversity within the African American community. The students at the Laboratory School were the children of successful business owners and preachers, attorneys, doctors, and teachers.

An article published in The Atlanta Constitution in 1979 described the Laboratory School’s Oglethorpe Elementary as the first step on the road to entry in the “black society.” The next step was the Laboratory High School, and then Spelman or Morehouse, before going off to graduate school.

The story of experimentation in black high schools in the 1930s and ‘40s, and the history of the education of African Americans, is worth a Black History Month program all by itself. Elaine Lemon was part of a progressive movement known as the Secondary School Study or the Black High School Study. It included the Laboratory School and 17 other high schools throughout the South, and her participation in this experiment undoubtedly shaped her philosophy as she continued her career in education.

While teaching in Atlanta, Elaine Lemon continued going to school during the summers and during leaves of absence, she would take from teaching. She continued working other side-jobs to help pay her way through school, but she no longer had to clean houses.

She earned her Master’s degree in Social Science from Columbia University in New York in 1941, where she was elected Dean’s Scholar in the Advanced School of Education in the Teachers College. She taught religion at the historic Riverside Church also in New York not far from Columbia, as well as at Chautauqua Institution in New York, and Tufts College in Boston.

When the United States entered World War II, Elaine Lemon switched gears and became a USO director, coordinating services for American troops and helping to boost morale.

Following the war, she went back to Indiana and taught in a public school. In 1953 she was named the first African-American principal of the new $1 million Frederick Douglass School in Gary, Indiana, where she served until she retired.

Retirement for Elaine did not mean rest. She continued learning and teaching, with the whole world as her classroom. She traveled to five continents as a YMCA World Ambassador in the mid-1970s and into the 1980s.

In India, she met the prime minister, Indira Gandhi. In Ghana, she helped to build a school for preschoolers. She visited Tanzania, Nigeria, and Uganda, Greece, Italy, and the People’s Republic of China. She visited countries in Europe and Central America. In 1982 she visited the Soviet Union.

Back in Gary, Indiana, Elaine was active with the Urban League, the YWCA, the PTA, the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Friends of the Library. She was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, a lifelong member of the NAACP, and an inspirational speaker. Her speaking topics included everything from the meaning of life to the role of women in the Space Age.

She was mentioned on the Society pages of Jet Magazine at least twice for her fundraising work with the United Negro College Fund and for her travels abroad.

When Elaine Lemon returned to Coastal Georgia, she made Savannah her home. She lived in the house she had bought many years earlier. (Yes, she did buy that house she was saving for all those years ago. It was a home where her mother lived out the last years of her life.)

In Savannah, she was an active member of St. Matthews Episcopal Church. She taught Sunday School and was a member of the St. Augustus Guild and served on the Day Care Center Board.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon died on New Year’s Day in 1999, in Savannah.

The gifted teacher had touched lives and inspired so many halfway across the country and around the world. Her funeral program read: “Bell, our beloved sister, aunt, cousin, and friend.”

She was an extraordinary woman. At the same time, she was like so many African American men and women of her generation … the grandchildren of enslaved people who fought to be free and control their own destiny.

Black people who rode the wave of the Great Migration from the South to the North and West, running from Jim Crow, searching for opportunity, building new lives.

Elizabeth Elaine Lemon was the product of a family that loved her, and an island community of friends, teachers and a church-family that nurtured her and instilled in her the desire to succeed and to serve.

Looking back, when she had time to reflect on her life, she understood the odds she overcame and the hard work she did to reach her goals.

“Would you believe that it is just in later years that I realized that my going to school was a heroic undertaking?” she reflected in an interview with genealogist Mae Ruth Green.

“I was working to send myself to school since I was in the fifth grade. I lived with people who worked me morning, noon, and night. I ate sparingly hoping they would notice and lighten my work … but they did not see.”

We see you, Bell, and we thank you, and we honor you for your perseverance and commitment.

She left her island home all those years ago, but she took Sapelo with her. All the love and discipline and determination that was poured into her, she poured into the world, and into the people whose lives she touched.


  1. Truly an outstanding individual and wonderful role model!!

  2. She was my principal at Frederick Douglass elementary in Gary Indiana !!! She was a true diamond �� and today is still a well known legend in my hometown and far beyond.

  3. I was blessed to be under her tutelage at Douglass School in Gary, Indiana. I remember her as being stern but in a loving manner. We were taught our black history throughout the school year which served me well as a building block for self worth and to believe in ourselves. When I speak about my hometown, there is always a reference to E.E. LEMON. A true giant in my eyes. Much respect.

  4. I was a student at Douglass Elementary School where Ms. Lemon was principal. She was a stern disciplinarian and strong leader. We had a lovely community school. Parents participated, teachers were always on point and students respected each other. As I look back on her stern ways, I realize she set the foundation for our educational paths and our citizenship. I appreciate this woman now as an adult. I didn't know all this about her, but now I see why she was the way she was.