Norvel: An American Hero
Norvel Lee was born in 1924 in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. His parents and siblings lived in a rural segregated black community. The family was close-knit, loving, and practical. Education and involvement in the affairs of their rustic church were emphasized. In spite of many obstacles, including Virginia's Jim Crow laws, limited schooling opportunities, and a speech impediment, Norvel went on to achieve remarkable accomplishments in the larger world, including an Olympic gold medal.
He was the top academic student at the Academy Hill School for Negroes in Fincastle, Virginia. When he graduated in 1943 he was selected for pilot training at Tuskegee, home of the Tuskegee Airmen. Norvel earned his wings but was rejected for an active pilot assignment because of his stammer. Instead he was sent to an airbase in Mississippi where he meets and befriends Robert Jackson of Leesburg, Virginia. While looking at a photo of Robert's family, Norvel notices Robert's sister and suggests he would like to meet her sometime. They are then sent to different areas in the Pacific during the closing months of WWII.
After the war Norvel enrolls at Washington D.C.'s Howard University. Norvel joins the newly integrated D.C. Golden Gloves. He establishes himself as the top heavyweight boxer in the region. Then, after only seven official bouts, he's selected as the alternate heavyweight on the U.S. Olympic boxing team. After the Olympics, while visiting his family in Gala, Norvel is arrested for sitting in the white section of a segregated train. He appeals the case, eventually resulting in a landmark civil rights decision.
Returning to Howard as a sophomore Norvel enlists in the ROTC. He encounters Robert Jackson again, a newly enrolled freshman. Norvel meets Robert's sister, Leslie. They begin dating, eventually marrying in 1951.
Norvel's establishes himself as the top amateur heavyweight boxer in the U.S. In 1950 and 1951 he becomes the national amateur heavyweight champion for both the AAU and Golden Gloves. He's selected as a member of the U.S Duals team. In a highly publicized bout he defeats Ingemar Johansson in Gothenburg, Sweden.
In March 1952, Norvel completes ROTC training and becomes a Captain in the Air Force Reserve. He remains in the reserves for thirty years, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
In 1952, Norvel is again selected for the Olympic boxing team. The Helsinki Olympic Games are the first to pit the U.S. against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but the athletes celebrate the coming together of the world. Norvel is the senior, most experienced boxing team member. As such he's asked to watch over seventeen year-old Floyd Patterson.
Norvel wins the gold medal and is voted by the judges to be the outstanding boxer of the Olympics. The Americans won five of the ten gold medals for boxing, a remarkable achievement on the world stage. All five men were African Americans. An iconic photo of the five men is included in the chapter.
Norvel became a prominent educator while he and Leslie raised their family. They also were proactive in many outreach programs, serving on a number of community boards.
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