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Arts & Culture

Voices of Leadership: Esther Lee reflects on Black history in the Lehigh Valley

Esther-Lee-first Black school board director
Esther Lee
Esther Lee, head of the Bethlehem NAACP

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – For Esther Lee, advocacy for a better quality of life and housing for Black people started as a young person growing up in South Bethlehem.

  • Esther Lee is a lifelong Bethlehem resident
  • She heads the Bethlehem NAACP
  • She was the first Black person in Bethlehem's history to hold an elected position

“For us as negroes, as we were called at that time, housing was substandard,” Lee said. “We lived in what I called ‘pockets’ in Bethlehem. Which meant there were, like now, developers who came through and brought up properties and rented to negroes but it was not a good situation."
Lee said not every house had running hot water and people often had to boil water. Some homes did not have functional toilet facilities.

For Lee, education was a key to changing people's livelihoods. If everyone had access to education, she reasoned, it could enable them to pursue their desires.

Lee eventually came to sit on the Bethlehem School Board as the first African-American woman elected to public office in the city in 1971.

“I had a place where I could make some demands, and I did. And I still do.”
Esther Lee, Bethlehem NAACP

She advocated for Black and Puerto Rican children at a time that she said life was different for them.

“I had a place where I could make some demands, and I did. And I still do,” Lee said.

The pandemic and its impact on children’s education are reasons Lee, 88, continues to advocate for education today.

She encourages younger activists to keep pushing with their work.

According to Lee, progress can be slow, but over time, change can be achieved.

Voices of Leadership is a digital and audio project during Black History Month.