May 8, 1922
It had been an especially chilly spring for Memphis. The morning light caught the tips of the river’s cresting rolls, glinting golden in promisingly bright flashes, but the warmth of the watery sunlight stood little chance against the wind as Tom Lee pushed his motorboat, the Zev, through the choppy current of the Mississippi. The bite of the spring chill made him feel every one of his thirty-nine years; like many black Americans in the South, Lee had spent most of his working life chasing small jobs that were hard on the pocket and even harder on the body: farmhand, fisherman, willow-cutter, river roustabout. Lee pulled his jacket more tightly around his shoulders and pressed on; he was making a good pace back from Helena, and with only fifteen miles between himself and Memphis, he would be home soon. Up ahead, he spotted two boats just shy of Cow Island Bend. He easily passed the first, a sternwheeler with twin smokestacks chugging merrily along, its decks heavy with men, women, and children pressed enthusiastically against the rails. The second boat, farther ahead, rounded the bend and slipped out of sight. As Lee prepared to follow suit, he paused, looking over his shoulder to catch one last glimpse of the boat behind him. For thirty-two of the passengers aboard the M.E. Norman, this fleeting, unlikely glance would prove to be the difference between life and death.
By all accounts, the sternwheeler had been a sound vessel. Only a year old, recently converted to a modern, oil engine, and piloted by a captain with thirty-one years of experience under his belt, the M.E. Norman had given its passengers—seventy-two members of the Memphis Engineer’s Club and their families— no reason to doubt its sturdiness. The trip down to Pinckney Landing to inspect the revetments there had gone smoothly; the Norman was a bit slower than the boat it traveled with, but gave no sign of eminent danger. Just as the Choctaw turned out of sight, however, the Norman listed unexpectedly to one side, then heaved to the other. The foaming water of the Mississippi rushed across the weight bogged decks, and the off-balance boat drifted sideways, suddenly at the mercy of the river’s ruthless current. Within moments, the Norman rolled and capsized, plunging everyone on deck into the frigid, roiling churn of the Mississippi.
Some took brief respite by clinging to the hull of the overturned boat, which bobbed for only a few minutes before slipping silently beneath the muddy water; others kept afloat by clinging to the remaining wreckage, and some, trapped beneath the deck of the Norman or weighed down by the waterlogged bulk of heavy dresses and suits, never resurfaced. Those left to battle the unforgiving current and icy water of the river looked helplessly toward the distant banks, to the bend where the Choctaw had only just disappeared, and to those around them who worked desperately to stay afloat against the river’s relentless pull. Despair began to set in as one by one, exhausted passengers slipped beneath the murky water, yet in the distance, the steadily increasing hum of an outboard motor promised hope.
Tom Lee’s response to the capsizing of the Norman was swift and automatic. Upon seeing the boat begin to list and sway, he spun the Zev around and pushed his way back downriver toward the unfolding disaster. Though Lee had ample reason to hesitate—he himself had never learned to swim, and his boat was small enough to be easily overturned by a panic-stricken passenger—he pulled into the thick of the wreckage, expertly maneuvering among the scattered flotsam and hauling the weary and waterlogged from the icy grasp of the river. Lee deposited load after load of shivering passengers on the riverbank, building driftwood fires for some and covering others with sun-soaked sand to keep them warm, before taking back to the river to search for more. His tireless pace continued throughout the night, and by the time the sun rose in the morning, over thirty-two passengers from the Norman owed Lee their lives.
Though the 1920’s South—thick in the dark dogma of Jim Crow Law—had little reputation for honoring the deeds of black Americans, the Memphis Engineer’s Club’s response to Tom Lee’s heroism offers an inspiring counterpoint to this tradition. Eager to express their gratitude, the Club raised funds to purchase an 800-square-foot bungalow for Lee and his wife, furniture to fill it with, and a bank account with which to pay the yearly taxes. The city of Memphis offered Lee a job with the Sanitation Department—a welcome departure from the inconsistent and poorly paying odd-jobs that had marked Lee’s working life thus far—from which he was allowed to retire early with a $75-a-month pension. Memphians’ gratitude did not waver with time: each Christmas brought baskets of food and gifts to the Lee’s doorstep, and in 1950, when Lee was diagnosed with cancer, the Memphis Engineer’s Club once again raised money for his benefit, hoping to save Lee’s life as he had once saved so many of theirs.
Despite their efforts, Tom Lee passed away in 1952. Two years after his death, the city christened Tom Lee Park, a thirty-acre stretch of land hugging the Mississippi in the heart of Memphis, and erected a thirty-foot, granite obelisk memorializing his selfless bravery. 2006 brought another monument to the riverfront, a bronze sculpture of Lee and the Zev, poised to pull a drowning man from the river. These monuments, however, pale in comparison to the memory of the man himself. In a world driven by self-preservation, Lee’s utterly noble act—risking his own life for the lives of people who, under different circumstances, might not have even shaken his hand—proves that sometimes legends are not the product of bravado and fanfare, but are born quietly, unassumingly, in a single moment of selfless bravery. Such is the case with Memphis’s Tom Lee, the hero of the M.E. Norman.