If the Hat Fits, Wear It: How the NAACP’s Esther Lee Stays Ahead

Written by on February 10, 2020

If the hat fits, wear it: How the NAACP’s Esther Lee stays ahead

By K.C. Lopez

February 10, 2020

Photo | K.C. Lopez / WLVR
Listen to K.C. Lopez’s full story.

Bethlehem, PA- Local NAACP President Esther Lee was born and raised in Bethlehem. 

As WLVR’s K.C. Lopez reports, Lee watched African American friends and family struggle with the city’s racial divide — and decided to work for change. 

South Bethlehem native and local NAACP President Esther Lee has worn many hats in her 82 years — from talk show host to civil rights activist.

“I’ve worked night and day just thinking about how we can combat or help someone combat their attitudes and help them be more subjective, to listen,” says Lee.

Some describe Esther Lee as captivating.

“I’m just an average, I’ll change from normal to average, female,” says Lee.

Photo | K.C. Lopez / WLVR

The 86 year old Bethlehem woman is known for a few things but being average isn’t one of them. She’s recognized for her activism.

“People meet me on the street and they ask me to continue doing what I’m doing. So it’s not going unnoticed,” says Lee.

She’s also known for her colorful sense of humor that’s reflected in a storied collection of hats.

“Now this hat I can easily wear to a funeral and I smile at funerals too. You don’t have to cry everywhere and make a fool of yourself,” she laughs.

Lee brought two sixty-gallon black bags to our interview. Inside were 16 of the more than 75 headpieces she’s gathered over the years. 

“So, if you have Monday through Sunday, are you going to wear the same hat twice in a week?” Lopez asks Lee.

“No, I try not to. Well, I do have weekday hats that I will wear. I could wear that one,” says Lee. “If I’m going to church or going to some kind of program, a community event, I’ll strut.”

Photo | K.C. Lopez / WLVR

But most of them are tied to a person or place. Like a wool white with feathers.

“It reminds me of the Queen of England and it takes me back to my great grandfather, who was English,” says Lee.

Sometimes a cobalt blue topper with beads ignites a memory.

“I wore this when they honored me at the high school graduation as a community person at Liberty High School,” says Lee.

Or a plum adorned with delicate lace reflects her mood.

“This one to me you look kind of mysterious, so maybe Esther doesn’t want to talk today so she’s going to wear this hat,” says Lopez.

” It could be, absolutely,” says Lee.

Photo | K.C. Lopez / WLVR

As Black History Month begins this February, it’s clear this South Bethlehem native has worn many hats over the years; that of a PBS39 talk show host, a wife and mother’s and still today, a local NAACP’s president’s. And even if she never attended college, Lee has always worn the hat of an educator and student. She became the first African American woman elected to a school board in the Lehigh Valley in 1971. 

“People were ecstatic. There had to be 300 or more people in that banquet hall and I remember this one minister coming in, my husband and I came to the door and he grabbed me and said, come on you have to make a speech! I said a speech for what? To me, I had won an election. For them, as a black woman, I had done more,” says Lee.

From a school director’s hat to a working woman’s hat, she joined the workforce full-time for a dry-cleaner who took a chance on the young woman in a city struggling with race.

Which was a challenge for that owner because even then, you have to remember we’re in Bethlehem and it was racist and he knew it, that he’d tend to lose business because I would be working at his front counter,” says Lee.

And when the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, things changed. She went on to work as a telephone operator and secretary. But as Lee’s passion for civil rights grew, so did her collection of headwear.

“My husband’s aunt was graduating from, at that time it was Broughal High School. She was to be the valedictorian, could not be because she was colored. We have found her speech in her trunk. Can you imagine that because she was, as they called it, colored, she could not give her speech. Those same things permeated Bethlehem most of its historical life,” says Lee.

Photo | K.C. Lopez / WLVR

“After that, it was the Martin Luther King holiday. City Hall and the school district, neither of them honored the holiday and for years we went and protested outside of the administration office for the school district,” Lee explains.

Today, Esther Lee makes sure to keep important issues top of mind. And when new challenges arise, her thinking cap is never too far.

“I’ve worked night and day just thinking about how we can combat or help someone combat their attitudes and help them be more subjective, to listen,” says Lee.

Photo | K.C. Lopez / WLVR

Esther Lee knows life can get tough, but this community knows, she’s tougher. A history like hers would prepare anyone for whatever lays a-head. 

Photo | K.C. Lopez / WLVR

Watch K.C. Lopez’s full PBS39 News Tonight Report.

Got a news tip? Email K.C. at KCLopez@WLVT.org


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