— By Carrie M. Brown
Hot flames visible for miles licked the night sky as steady streams of water battled to keep the shooting flames at bay. It was a Tuesday night in the fall of 1958 and Evanston’s Foster School sat ablaze. While other residents stood celebrating the school building’s demise, forty-two-year-old Eddie Lee Sutton sat on a street corner and cried.
She would later call the burning of the school, “an end of an era.” For those who knew her best, Eddie Lee’s reaction would come as no surprise. Between her Pine Bluff, Arkansas birth in 1916 and her death in 1991, she dedicated her life to the education and service of others.
Teacher, publisher, poet and activist she was born Eddie Lee Davis on December 28, 1916 to Cody Laverne and Edward Davis. When her mother decided she was not able to raise a child, Eddie Lee was placed in the care of the Coleman family. Growing up, many recognized early on that she was a “very, very smart child,” said her nephew Carlis Sutton. Those smarts lead the young Eddie Lee to graduate with honors from the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff in 1938 with a degree in Language Arts. After an unsuccessful attempt to break the barrier of racial discrimination by applying for graduate studies at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Eddie Lee made her way to Evanston and the campus of Northwestern University. It was there that she earned a Master’s degree in Speech Re-Education in 1946.
Personally Eddie Lee began building a life for herself. In 1940 she married fellow University of Arkansas student Julius Sutton. Described by many as “handsome and statuesque,” Sutton was a horse trainer and professional boxer with a Master’s degree in physical therapy. Known for his striking good looks, people would often ask him why he chose to marry Eddie Lee. “He said because she had more character than any woman he’d ever met before,” Carlis said. When medical issues prevented the two from conceiving, the Suttons adopted a daughter, Janee. Years prior, while living in Arkansas, the Suttons took in the seven-year-old girl whose mother was sick with tuberculosis. “Eddie Lee was very compassionate,” Carlis said. “She had kids in and out of the house.”
As one story goes, it was a warm summer day in Evanston. The shrieks and laughter of children at play filled the streets, rising high above the rooftops of neatly rowed homes. It was there that Eddie Lee spent her summers caring for a young boy with cerebral palsy. Many of the neighborhood children were afraid of him, teasing him about his disability. That day Eddie Lee confronted the young boy’s peers. She told them that although his body lacked control, his mind was just as good as theirs, and that they should be grateful for the ability to run and play.
“That was Eddie Lee,” Carlis said. “She was a true defender of the underdog.”
Mary Wilkerson, vice-president of the district 202 school board, has fond memories of Eddie Lee. A student at the Foster School in the 1950s, Wilkerson worked with Eddie Lee to correct a speech impediment beginning in third grade. The two worked together up into Wilkerson’s high school years. She thinks warmly of her weekends and afternoons at Eddie Lee’s home.
“She was so giving of her time,” Wilkerson said. “She wasn’t just a nine to five person.” Wilkerson, who now organizes an annual citywide teachers appreciation event, said her efforts are a way of thanking Eddie Lee and those like her.
“She inspired me. . . and I want to say thank you to her for what she did for me,” Wilkerson said. “She truly was the wind beneath my wings. I credit her with my speaking ability.”
Eddie Lee’s penchant for serving those in need was displayed most prominently in the classroom. After the Foster School, where she had been teaching, burned down in 1958, Eddie Lee poured her thoughts and feelings into her writing.
“Way ahead of her time,” is how Carlis describes his aunt. Years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Eddie Lee’s interest in the education gap between white children and black children lead her to compile a comprehensive study on the quality of education for black students. For ten years, between 1946-1956 she tracked the academic progress of 15 black Evanston students. According to Eddie Lee’s research, there was no disparity in academic progress before and after school segregation. But her research could not be furthered as her records were destroyed after a flood in her basement.
It was Eddie Lee’s work outside the classroom that made her well known. In the 1950s, she became a member of the Evanston chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a community service organization. In that same decade, she also became the first black member of the Zonta Club of Evanston, an exclusive international women’s business club chartered in 1931.
But Eddie Lee’s writing offers the most in depth look at the life of a woman wholeheartedly dedicated to the service of others. In 1969, she founded Jaens-Del Publishing Company to publish her own educational materials for speech and language development. It was with Jaens-Del that she published her first book, Listen to the Lambs. Twenty-one years later Jaens-Del was reborn and renamed Sutton & Sutton Publishing, Inc. After Eddie Lee retired from teaching in 1989 she published a second book, Not for Blacks Only. In it she wrote, “This small volume of poems covers a wide range of human interests…it touches many of the problems we face today in our communities, our homes and in our schools.” With Not for Blacks Only, Eddie Lee sought to encourage young people to live their fullest lives.
Education and children, two of Eddie Lee’s loves, were the inspiration for her work. She spent the years after the Foster School fire as a speech pathologist for District 65 in Evanston, rotating to various elementary schools. In the summer of 1972 Eddie Lee and her family founded “Learning How To Learn,” a private summer school program founded at Evanston’s Second Baptist Church. “It was really our family’s attempt to close the [education] gap,” Carlis said.
Eddie Lee’s work in the area of speech pathology was recognized at the 1969 Annual Convention of the American Speech and Hearing Association where she taught a short course on speech language correction in the public schools. The summer of the previous year she organized an experimental program for preschool children with severe speech-language handicaps. The program, partially sponsored by Florida State University, continues today.
For all that she accomplished Eddie Lee did not look for recognition. “She was very humble,” Carlis said. “She did not look for the limelight.”
Her legacy took the place of limelight. The first was an emphasis on education. According to Carlis she said, “You’re not going to college to get a job.” Eddie Lee’s question was “What will you contribute to the world?” Carlis said she described her service to the community as simply part of the “Sutton family legacy of service.” She was also a strong advocate of mentorship. Carlis recounts his aunt’s words on mentorship: She used to say, “as a well educated black person it’s a commitment you have to have.”
Eddie Lee died after complications from diabetes in 1991. But her story does not end there. Her life inspired many to a life of service. And it is there that her legacy lies. Small deeds as grains of sand on the coast, or drops of water in the ocean, her determination to make a difference is the legacy she left behind.
Sources: Original article appeared in the printed version of Shorefront Journal, volume 5, number 3, 2004. Sutton’s publication, Not For Blacks Only, can be found at the Shorefront Legacy Center.