For half a century, William H. Lee and his family have piloted the Sacramento Observer, a weekly paper that has been the face, voice and pulse of African Americans in the region. His wife, Kathryn C. Lee, whom he married in 1961, served as the paper's inspiration and financial manager until her death on March 25. Their son Larry Lee is now president and general manager.
William Lee, 76, was born in Austin, Texas. His father, the late Rev. Charles R. Lee, was an auto mechanic who loved gospel and sang in quartets. His mother, Carrie Woods Lee, worked as a domestic. During World War II, they joined the Great Migration along with millions of African Americans who left the South for major U.S. cities. Lee's father got a job at Bethlehem Steel shipyards at Hunters Point, San Francisco.
What was it like living in the projects at Hunters Point?
It opened our eyes to the diversity we now take for granted. We were still Negroes, who didn't have much of an exposure to public accommodations. Asians were called Orientals and Latinos were called Mexicans. We went to school together, enjoyed our community center together and had meetings together. We all became like one family.
Why did you set down roots in Sacramento?
My father got a job repairing a fleet of garbage trucks in Sacramento. So we moved into a cramped one-and-a-half-bedroom home on Cypress Street in Del Paso Heights. At Grant High School, I played basketball and was a straight-A student and received a scholarship to UC Berkeley. After the first two weeks, I told my mom and dad I wanted to come home. I spent two years at Sacramento State, then went back to UC Berkeley and graduated in accounting and business.
I went to apply for a job at an accounting firm in Oakland with two buddies. They happened to be white and I was the better student. They knew and I knew it. They were hired, but the person who interviewed me said, "We would have a tough time fitting you into our workplace at this time." I pleaded with him, and my buddies threatened to turn down the jobs if I wasn't hired. I told them not to, but that experience in Oakland gave me a jolt and an introduction to racism like I'd never had before.
A buddy of mine got on at Aerojet in Sacramento. My supervisor, Dr. Ralph Plank, greeted me with open arms and I stayed there for five years, winding up in charge of the evening shift measuring the burning density of propellant. During the day I started my own real estate company and did very well, selling almost 200 homes in 1964 as others migrated from the South to McClellan and Mather Air Force bases. The Junior Chamber of Commerce named me Young Man of the Year.
How was the Observer born?
There were no African Americans on TV, no African Americans writing for the Sacramento Union or The Bee, no black judges or elected officials. There was no way for our community to see hope and realize there were opportunities. In 1959, my wife, who was then my girlfriend, helped me start the Men's Civic League, which later become the 100 black professionals and led to the founding of the Sacramento Urban League. We got a lot of support from the more progressive and sensitive people of Sacramento, including state Sen. Al Rodda, Sheriff John Misterly and Harold Haught of the telephone company, who helped African Americans find their place, gain opportunities and overcome the fear of racism. But we discovered we had a very difficult time getting news into the daily newspapers.
The Rev. J.T. Muse occasionally published the Sacramento Outlook, so a few us bought his newspaper and embellished it with a lot of community news and sports. We launched the Sacramento Observer, "the Paper with an Eye for the News," in November 1962. In 1968, we lost about $60,000 on the paper, but by then I was a prominent real estate broker with 17 agents. My wife and I became active in the black National Newspaper Publishers Association. In 1973, we were named the country's leading black newspaper.
What was the secret of the Observer's success?
We decided to specialize in "special editions," taking on the hard subjects challenging our community: poverty, economic development, education, health. We had specials that grew to over 300 pages, published a school and charter guide for 15 years, showcased the 100 Most Important African Americans in California and got the attention of America. At our national convention in San Francisco we won 14 of the 17 top awards in the country and ultimately grew to the point where we had offices and stand-alone editions in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Stockton, Suisun and Reno. We grew to 35 reporters, and our L.A. paper, The Happenings, became known as the black Rolling Stone. We had good accounts from CBS, Motown, Columbia and Atlantic records, and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and other Motown stars came to our offices on Hollywood Boulevard.
How have you seen America change?
Black culture has changed radically over the years. Access to public accommodations did not come into being until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We tested it by taking a bus to Reno to see if African Americans could go to any casinos other than one called China Star. All the others denied us entry, but when we took the press with the Men's Civic Improvement League, the casinos welcomed us with open arms and said, "all we want you to do is bring money." So that was our incentive to found a paper in Reno.
In the early days, you had to build hope and reassurance through examples of success. We said, you've got to study and prepare yourself to excel and become outstanding and don't be frightened away by the barriers and obstacles. Today we have a black mayor, black judges, a black president, and a 21-year-old African American was elected to the Stockton City Council. The challenge now is to inspire young people to take advantage of the opportunities made available to them.
Racism still exists, even though we've erased the legal barriers. It's far more subtle.
What is the future of the Observer and young African Americans?
The paper's always had its niche in the African American community. We still publish weekly, averaging about 60 pages. Our digital circulation's growing rapidly, especially on the mobile side. Our 50th anniversary celebration continues throughout this year. We know as African Americans, we're not there yet - we have to create more doctors, educators, teachers. You've got to become developers, own properties, get into business and find the answer through technological insight that others don't have. The first step is to be totally prepared to become the next president, the next mayor, so we can't say we just did it one time and it disappeared.
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to Harold Haught of the telephone company by an incorrect last name. Story was updated at 11:40 a.m.Thursday, May 9.