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Photo: @nij77

A Worthy Hero: Tom Lee – The Person, Park & Poetry (Muse)

GUEST POST BY CANDACE GRAY, Marketing and Communications Consultant at Memphis River Parks Partnership

As we close out the month-long celebration of the contributions African-Americans have made throughout the United States, it’s fitting that we highlight one of Memphis’ everyday heroes: Tom Lee

Tom Lee was a Black man who deserves to be celebrated today and every day.

Even though the most visible riverfront park in Memphis is named after him, his descendants have worked for years to ensure he is lauded as more than a “worthy Negro” – the inscription on his original memorial obelisk (erected in 1952).

Tom Lee’s courage and selflessness led to lives saved as he rescued dozens of strangers from drowning in the icy current of the Mississippi River. His legacy guides the transformation of Tom Lee Park into the new front door for Memphis and anchor for our riverfront district; a signature park that is worthy of the man it’s named after—a place where we are all inspired to act with kindness, generosity and selflessness towards others.

David Alan Clark's Tom Lee Memorial commemorates local hero Tom Lee in his heroic act on May 8, 1925, when he saved the lives of 32 people from the waters of the Mississippi River. Photo by: @nij77

On May 8 1925, Lee, a river worker, was planning an uneventful trip to Helena, Arkansas, and back, aboard his small skiff, the Zev.

Two larger steamship boats, the Choctaw and M.E. Norman, would plot the same course to Helena, carrying a conference of the Engineers’ Club of Memphis to view the revetment project at Pinckney Landing, south of Memphis. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ M. E. Norman was sailing with passengers for the first time.  Although the ship was captained by a 39-year veteran, the Norman – and its 72 passengers – capsized on its return journey back to Memphis. 

Tom Lee happened to pass by as the tragedy began to unfold and quickly leapt into action. Though he did not know how to swim, he courageously rescued 32 people, pulling them aboard his boat eight at a time, all amidst a tumultuous current, risking his own life to save others. (More details of the rescue are available in this Memphis magazine article.) 

Tom Lee received awards and accolades from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Engineers’ Club of Memphis, the City of Memphis and thankful citizens. The African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church passed a resolution that reads:

“We hail you as the patron knight of this new age of chivalry and heroism, and extol your manly virtue as worthy of the best heart of your proud but humble race.”

Lee was even honored by President Calvin Coolidge at the White House. 

A modest Lee said, “I guess I didn’t do any more than anyone else would have done in my place.” 

Lee would receive a more stable job as a sanitation worker, a bigger and better house, and a modest pension which he enjoyed until he passed away in 1952 due to cancer. Following his death, Mayor E. H. Crump renamed Astor Park (at the foot of Beale Street) after Tom Lee

In the early 90s, the park was expanded to its current size by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Left flat and largely open, the space has always held the potential to be so much more.

Today, that potential is being realized.

Tom Lee Park is being transformed into a signature park for all of Memphis and Shelby County to enjoy and be proud of, together.

Inclusive spaces are integral to building strong communities. The more that we come together with those different from ourselves, the more opportunity we have to build empathy, to see the world from another’s point of view and to become vulnerable enough to imagine humanity from that vantage point. 

The new Tom Lee Park is designed to be just that – a free, equitable, inclusive and welcoming space for all, with features for everyone to enjoy. 

Opportunities to connect with other members of the community, to learn about native regional flora and fauna, to achieve health and wellness goals, to see a show or participate in a community event will ABOUND in the new Tom Lee Park. 

The park is designed in four zones, each of which offer unique, enticing features:

  • Civic Gateway: Features the Cutbank Bluff, a radically redefined park entrance and access point from Vance Ave. and the first ADA-accessible route up and down the bluff. The new access leads to AutoZone Plaza with a misting fountain and natural stone seating nestled beside a shaded community tree grove.
  • Active Core: As home to the park’s signature all-ages play space with outdoor exercise equipment featured at River Fit, the central Active Core will buzz with activity. The one-of-a-kind 20,000 sq. ft. Civic Canopy will host music, sports, events and more with the unrivaled backdrop of the river. A river deck and two river lawns will play host to the free nightly showing of spectacular Mississippi River sunsets while pavilions and shaded seating provide options for food and restrooms.
  • Community Batture: Designed as the quieter, more serene and peaceful part of the park, this area will feature topographic changes that unlock new river views, provide sloping lawns for family enjoyment, meditative paths, a Peace Walk and a River Overlook that will accommodate smaller outdoor gatherings. Community Tables and Hammock Groves will offer spaces to relax, unwind and gather in small groups. Tom Lee Memorial sits here and will ground the work world-renowned artist Theaster Gates is creating in A Monument to Listening.
  • Habitat Terraces: The Habitat Terraces, at the southern-most end of the park, offer an intimate and immersive experience with nature, featuring educational spaces, sound and sensory gardens, and plenty of native plants and wildlife.

The park is currently under construction and scheduled to re-open to the public next year.

  • The Cutbank bluff, the new northern entrance to the park, will be complete this summer.
  • If you take a ride down Riverside Drive, you can see the zig-zag winding pathway, with stone scramble seating areas, starting to take shape. (Care givers for wheelchair-bound citizens, moms with strollers – this one’s for you!) 

Tom Lee’s inspiration runs throughout the park

The current statue memorializing Tom Lee will remain in place – with much enhanced surroundings. A new public artwork by renowned artist Theaster Gates will extend Lee’s presence in the park. 

Gates’ work, A Monument to Listening, will create a reflective space that calls on visitors to consider their own humanity in light of Lee’s example. How can we all act a little more like Tom Lee every day?

Gates’ work – and activation around it – is made possible through a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

On May 8, 2019, Memphis celebrated the first formal recognition of Tom Lee Day. Lee’s descendants, survivors’ descendants, and community members gathered to commemorate the day and hear Sebastian Carson’s spoken word piece “A Very Worthy Hero.” 

This year, the Tom Lee Poetry and Spoken Word Contest invites high school students to submit their own work for a chance at a cash prize and the opportunity to perform their work on Tom Lee Day

Contest Details

High School students (grades 9-12) are encouraged to write and submit an original work of poetry or spoken word (or rap), no more than 40 lines using the values of courage, kindness, selflessness and generosity as his or her inspiration. 

The top three winners will receive a prized, as detailed below:

  • 1st Place – $300 + professional recording and performance at Tom Lee Day (5/8/22)
  • 2nd Place – $200 + professional recording and performance at Tom Lee Day (5/8/22)
  • 3rd Place – $100 + professional recording and performance at Tom Lee Day (5/8/22)


Entries are due 3/31/22. Judging will occur for two weeks, with plans to notify winners by 4/20/22. The top three winners will perform their award-winning works at the 4th Annual Tom Lee Day celebration. The recording will be scheduled after Tom Lee Day.

Teachers there’s something in it for you, too!

If YOUR student wins, you also receive a gift card for the same amount of your student’s prize! So be sure to encourage your students to participate.

Additionally, you are cordially invited to attend an information session about the contest Thursday, March 10th, 4:30-6:30pm at Beale Street Landing. We will have refreshments, provide an overview of the park and give you an exclusive construction site hard-hat tour!

Stay tuned for more updates on the NEW park, the Poetry contest and more things to do on the riverfront.

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