Upon moving to Jacksonville in 1873, Joseph E. Lee became the city’s first practicing Black lawyer. As it turned out, that would be just the first of several accomplishments in Lee’s groundbreaking professional life.
Born in Philadelphia, PA, in 1849, Lee received the finest education that was available to a young Black man at the time; he attended the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, which later became Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, and studied law at the famed Howard University.
After earning a law degree from Howard in 1873, Lee set his sights on Jacksonville, opening up practice as an attorney locally. Before long, he was elected to serve in the Florida House of Representatives – he served for six years beginning in 1875, according to historic state archive documents.
Lee was one of a handful of Black politicians who found success in the waning days of Reconstruction, before the proliferation of “Jim Crow” laws effectively shut them out of politics. He was a valued figure in the Republican Party, twice named as a delegate for the Republican National Convention.
Lee left the House to serve in the state Senate – he was there for a single term.
Though the wheels of disenfranchisement had begun to turn, Lee was a popular figure among Jacksonville residents – particularly the city’s Black population which, thanks to the recent annexation of Black suburbs LaVilla and Brooklyn, wielded a surprising degree of political power. Lee leveraged this power effectively, becoming a municipal judge in 1888 despite running against two white candidates.
After serving as judge, Lee twice served as customs collector for the Port of St. Johns. In 1898, he became the city’s collector of internal revenue – now known as tax collector – and kept that role for fifteen years before leaving office in 1913.
According to a note from Eartha M.M. White’s personal records, Lee began practicing law again out of an office on Beaver Street following his tenure as the city’s tax collector. He worked up until his passing in 1920.
Though there are shockingly few reminders of Lee’s presence that remain today, his impact locally and nationally was immense. As the city’s first Black lawyer, he helped pave the way for James Weldon Johnson, Daniel Webster Perkins, and so many other attorneys of color, past and present, in Jacksonville.