Ethel Delaney Lee never held an elected office in the District or received an appointment to a high-level position in a mayoral administration but “those in the know” said she served with distinction behind the scenes and made a difference in city politics and in the lives of District residents.
“Ethel Delaney Lee was very involved in the community and in politics,” said D.C. Councilmember Anita Bonds (D-At Large). “We worked together on past campaigns, particularly the effort to get Marion Barry elected his first time as mayor in 1978. Throughout the years, she checked on what was going on in the city through the radio. She was very good at what she did.”
Lee, who died earlier this year on Jan. 28 at the age of 96, graduated cum laude from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in home economics. She married E. Preston Lee, who eventually became a dentist, teaching at the Howard University College of Dentistry and eventually setting up his own practice.
She counts as one of the first Black women to work for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. One of her most lasting memories while employed with the police department had to do with an assignment during which she served undercover at one of President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Balls. She attended the event, dressed in a formal gown with a gun in her purse. In 1990, Lee retired from the D.C. Public School system as the state level attendance officer after just over 24 years of service.
Lee began her civic and political activism with the swearing-in of D.C. Mayor Walter Washington in 1975 as the city’s first elected leader after Home Rule went into effect one year earlier. However, four years later, she changed course and decided to support then D.C. at-large Councilmember Marion S. Barry, Jr., for mayor in 1978.
In a July 28, 2017 interview with writer Betty King of the Marion Barry 1978 Mayoral Primary Campaign Oral History Project, Lee talked about how she became involved with Barry’s first mayoral victory. She said Washington didn’t know her personally but knew her face and expressed shock when he saw her supporting Barry while at the D.C. Board of Elections.
“Walter was a classy guy but not what we needed at the time,” Lee said during the interview.
Also, she talked about how the Lee household became split among the three major candidates in the mayor’s race.
“And the interesting part about that was my husband, even though he was not involved, was a Walter Washington person, my oldest daughter was working in Sterling Tucker’s campaign and I put Marion Barry’s poster on the front lawn,” Lee said.
After Barry’s victory, Lee decided to run for a Ward 4 position on the D.C. Democratic State Committee. She ran against and defeated Dr. Janette Hoston Harris – a capable opponent and friend who later became the District’s “first city historian.”
“She has never forgiven me for it,” Lee said in the interview.
Lee advised and mentored such District political figures as former D.C. Councilmembers Charlene Drew Jarvis, John Ray and Brandon Todd and Council Chair Linda Cropp and Mayors Sharon Pratt, Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray and Muriel Bowser. Bowser praised Lee as a friend and mentor.
“Ethel Delaney Lee was a neighbor and a friend of mine and a friend of Washington, D.C.,” the mayor said at Lee’s Funeral at Metropolitan AME Church on Feb. 16. “She loved Ward 4 and the city. When she would call me, I made it a point to get back to her right away. The real story of Washington is the story of Ethel Delaney Lee.”
While Lee mainly operated locally, she did have her moment in the national spotlight. On Sept. 15, 1999, Lee spoke about the need for seniors to have Medicare fully funded in the federal budget while standing with Vice President Al Gore, House Democratic Leader Gephardt and Democratic members of the U.S. Congress at the Hart Senate Office Building.
“Medicare and Social Security are vital to me and millions of Americans,” Lee said to an audience televised by C-SPAN. “I am now 73 and have developed hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Fortunately, I have Medicare and supplemental health insurance due to retirement from my job. But many people cannot afford supplemental insurance and the cost of prescription drugs have skyrocketed. The Republican tax cut sounds good but the country should take care of its obligations and the seniors should be first.”
Denise Reed, a Ward 7 political activist, said Lee influenced a long line of elected officials.
“Her advice to politicians in this city extended to many generations,” Reed said. “She was an influencer and many elected officials took their marching orders from Mrs. Lee.”