... The Memphis Hero



On May 8, 1925, Tom Lee was in his small motor boat on the Mississippi finishing his job with C. W. Hunter, a company doing repair work along the river.  The big steamer, M. E. Norman had just passed him and Lee was sure the Norman was in trouble.  Within seconds the Norman rolled over and capsized in the swift current trapping dozens of passenger and hurling others into the river.  Although he couldn't swim, Tom Lee rescued 32 people with five trips to shore.  He had acted quickly and calmly, without regard for his own safety.   He continued to search for survivors well into the night.  Because of his efforts, only 23 passengers died and Tom became and remains a big hero in Memphis.




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Tom Lee was born in Crittenden County, Arkansas, 18 February 1885.  Crittenden County is located in East-Central Arkansas and its eastern and  southern boundaries are the Mississippi River.  The county is rich, delta farmland and the main crop, of course, is cotton.  The area has a history of not accepting Reconstruction after the Civil War and because of threats and violence, many African-Americans in this area fled to Memphis, the nearest big city.  It's no surprise that Tom Lee would also end up in Memphis.  One job that would have been available to blacks was working as a "Roustabout" on the Mississippi - basically a "jack of all trades" or doing anything that was necessary at the time. 


Location Typical Farm Area Typical Living Conditions Roustabout Work

Tom was employed by the C. W. Hunter Co. as a Roustabout.  At the time, this company was doing Levee Repair work along the river and Tom's job was to use his small motorboat and transfer executives from one location to another.  This job led  to Tom's big moment in time.





Captain Howard Fenton was a very experienced Riverman and had worked on dozens of ships on the Mississippi for 39 years.  He had just been transferred to the M. E. Norman which he had never piloted before. 

Capt Fenton  

The Norman was a 114 foot long sternwheeler with two decks and a wheelhouse.  It was less than a year old, and was a modern ship in every way.  It's coal-burning system had just been converted to oil and this was the Norman's first voyage using the new system.  The ship had originally been designed as a towboat for a small crew and this was the first time the Norman had ever carried passengers.   The passengers were members of the Engineers Club of Memphis, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and their families


M. E. Norman





39 year old Tom Lee was in his little motor boat, the Zev.  He had ferried his boss downriver to Helena, Arkansas and was returning to Memphis.  As he passed the steamer Norman, he knew something was wrong.  It seemed to be fighting the current and listing to Starboard.  Lee continued to watch and realized that the boat was caught crossways in the current.  In seconds the Norman rolled over trapping dozens of passengers in the main cabin and hurling the others into the river.  The ship floated upside down for only 5 minutes before plunging to the bottom. 


Seventy two men, women and children were at the mercy of the Mississippi.  In their heavy suits and dresses, swimming was almost impossible and the river current quickly swept them downstream.  They were helpless.  Tom turned the Zev around and raced to the passengers.  He quickly pulled  eight passengers into his boat and carried them to a sandbar.  And then he returned for more.


Bismark News News News Richmond Oakland



After making four trips to the sandbar, Lee gathered some driftwood and built a fire because the survivors were shivering from shock and from the cold.  Afterwards he went back and continued his search for more survivors, staying at it until morning.  This man who could not swim, had pulled 32 passengers from the water.  When those 32 returned to Memphis, they all talked about the "mysterious black man who had saved them".  Reporters were eager to find Tom and get his story. 


St. Paul Bulletin Bismark News

M. E. Norman

Tom Lee

The heroism shown by Tom Lee on this day captured the imagination of Memphis and America.   His story eventually appeared in newspapers across the country.  Everyone wanted to meet this amazing hero and he became everyone's idol.  This shy man was deeply embarrassed to be in the spotlight for so many days but he was now a celebrity  - although somewhat reluctant.





Tom was invited to the White House to meet President Calvin Coolidge.  Memphis began discussions about doing something for  this hometown hero and many tributes and gifts began pouring in.  Jeweler Julius Goodman presented Tom with a gold watch.  The Memphis Engineer's Club began a fundraiser to buy him a house.


     Thank you

Calvin Coolidge The Lee Fund Engineer's Club Logo Coolidge Lee

In a matter of weeks funds were raised to buy Lee a small brick house at 923 North Mansfield.  He and his wife lived there until his death.  The years have not been kind to this still standing home.  It is currently boarded up with no plans for renovation.  The Lee family wants the home restored and moved near downtown.  The head of the Landmarks Commission is not in agreement because "moving a home changes its historical value".  But a marker is being prepared to go up on Mansfield St.  (Memphis is BIG on markers)


923 N. Mansfield 923 N. Mansfield 923 N. Mansfield 923 N. Mansfield

Lee was also given a job with the city's sanitation department where he earned 20 cents an hour.  In the 1920s this was about the best job an unskilled black laborer could expect.  And Tom Lee worked with the sanitation department for the next 20 years.  When he retired in 1948, the city gave him a pension twice as much as he would normally have received.  And from 1925 until his death, the Engineer's Club paid the taxes on his house and gave him $50 each Christmas.

Vintage Sanitation Work  

Tom Lee died of cancer on April 1, 1952 and is buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery on Hernando Road.  His wife Margaret, later moved to California, where she died in the 1970s. 

(Captain Howard Fenton retired in 1939 at the age of 70).


Tom Lee Grave


Tom Lee Park  .  Tribute to the Memphis Hero

In 1942, a black-only swimming pool was named in honor of Tom Lee.  Memphis Boss E. H. Crump later decided that Lee deserved a more fitting tribute than this pool.  Two years after his death a small park along Riverside drive was named in honor of Tom Lee and marked with a granite obelisk.  The obelisk was partially destroyed during Hurricane Elvis in 2003, and further damaged during the storms of 2017.  The obelisk dedication contains the outdated phrase "To a Very Worthy Negro"



The Tom Lee Park officially opened in 1954 and encompasses about 30 acres, overlooking Riverside Drive along the Mississippi River.  Today the park is a very popular location for walkers, joggers, roller bladders, and cyclists.  The Tom Lee Park hosts events throughout the year but is  most notable for the major weekend events held during Memphis in May.  (Prior to 1954 the name of this park was Astor Park and much of it was built up using "dredging spoil").

Tom Lee Park        


Obelisk Tom Lee Park Tom Lee Park Tom Lee Statue


After the obelisk was damaged during storms, a more appropriate and stunning bronze sculpture by artist David Alan Clark was added to the park in 2006.  It depicts Lee and a survivor being saved from drowning in the Mississippi.

David Alan Clark   Tom reaching for Survivor

Memphis in May Festival
is held each May to promote and celebrate Memphis culture, foster economic growth, and enhance international awareness through education.  Among other things this very popular festival features the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking contest, which is held at Tom Lee Park.


Memphis in May


After years of planning,  renovation of Tom Lee Park is finally underway (July 2021).  The $60 million renovation is expected to take two years and the park will remain closed during construction.







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Special thanks to Michael Finger and "Tom Lee:  A Hero's Tale", 2014


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