Feature Article of Thursday, 15 July 2010
Columnist: Asante, Elizabeth K.
July 7, 2010
In the mid-1950s, Dr. Robert Lee, a dentist from South Carolina, moved to
Ghana to escape racism in the south. Over the next half century, Lee became
a fixture in the African-American community in the West African country. He
died this week at the age of 90. Host Michel Martin talks to NPR West
African correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about his life and legacy.
Copyright © 2010 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
The Democratic Republic of Congo observes 50 years of independence. We speak
with a State Department official charged with addressing that country's
refuge crisis. He's just back from a trip there and he'll be with us to tell
us more in a few minutes.
But first, we want to take a moment to remember a South Carolina native who
died on Monday at the age of 90. But few here in his home state, or in the
States at all, knew of his work. But in Ghana, he made a name for himself.
Dr. Robert Lee, trained as a dentist, moved to Accra in the mid-1950s. Over
the past half century, Lee became a fixture in the black American ex-patriot
community in Ghana.
Joining us now to tell us more about him is NPR's West Africa correspondent
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton who just last year had a chance to interview Dr. Lee.
And she joins us now from Johannesburg. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Oh, Dr. Lee. Dr. Lee, as everybody
called him in Ghana. He was a figure that everybody knew. With his grey
hair, his baritone voice, his gentle manner and his passion for Ghana. It's
going to be a huge, huge, huge, huge loss, Michel.
MARTIN: Ofeibea, back up for a second and tell us why Dr. Lee moved to Ghana
to begin with. And I have to tell you, one of the reasons I was so intrigued
by this is I too have a relative who moved to Ghana in the 1950s, but who
did come back about a decade later, so and I've never had a chance to ask
him why he did that. So would you tell us why Dr. Lee moved to Ghana?
QUIST-ARCTON: You know what, he said he met Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's
independent leader, the first prime minister and then president of Ghana at
Lincoln University - and other Ghanaians. He said they just lit a fire in
him. Whilst America was trying to deal with its human rights and its civil
rights problem, he said here were these young Africans and they were so
confident that they were going to be able to jettison colonial rule. And
they were so sure, so determined, that he was fired up by them. And that's
why he wanted to be there to witness it.
He said not that he was against or not that he'd given up on civil rights in
the U.S., but he was so galvanized by the Ghanaians or the Gold Coasters as
they were called there, that he was going to head to Ghana with them.
MARTIN: You mentioned that he made a life for himself. He trained Ghanaians
in dentistry and he became a leader, some would say a part of the patriarchy
of the African-American ex-patriot community there. What was it that made
him so beloved?
QUIST-ARCTON: I think it's because Dr. Lee was such a listener. And it
wasn't only Dr. Lee who trained the generation of Ghanaians, his wife as
well. I mean, this was a couple that came to Ghana and that helped Ghana. I
remember Dr. Lee telling me, because I never met his late wife, that she set
up the first mobile clinic, and that it used to travel around the capital,
Accra, and help people who had problems with their teeth and their health. I
mean, that was unheard of then.
Ghana had just got independence. Did we have any dentists? Probably very
few. Doctors, probably very few at that point. But these two people, this
couple, come all the way from the U.S. to say, Ghana, we're here to help
you. We are here to live with you. We are here to become a part of you. I
mean, that's just such a wonderful story.
MARTIN: Let me ask you, though, you interviewed Dr. Lee in the course of
President Obama's brief visit to Ghana last year. And I wonder, did Dr. Lee
ever express any regret that he well, he certainly did live to see the day
when the United States had an African-American president. But did he express
any regret that he missed out being in the country, in the U.S., when all
this was happening?
QUIST-ARCTON: I think I asked him about what was going on in the U.S. He
said, you know, he goes home, he went home for medical treatment. He's a war
vet and so on. He hadn't cut off from the U.S., not at all. Some of his
children were there brought up there. But what he felt, though, was Barack
Obama being elected the first black president of the U.S., is that the U.S.
was also making progress.
But I think he also felt that in a way Ghana had made progress long before
the U.S. The fact that the independence leaders had fought for this all gone
to prison for their struggle and been determined to say to Britain, enough,
we are ready to govern ourselves. That he felt was a tremendous achievement.
MARTIN: Let's just play a short clip from your interview with Dr. Lee, where
you asked him about what he thought President Obama's election represents.
Here it is.
Dr. ROBERT LEE (Dentist): This fellow also shows that being black doesn't
have much to do with what you become. Because Africa in the past, in America
(unintelligible), always felt if they can ever do these things,
(unintelligible) white people, but that Obama has proved this is not true.
MARTIN: So, Ofeibea, you found him quite charming, it seems.
QUIST-ARCTON: Not quite charming unbelievably charming. He had one of these
brilliant smiles that lit up his whole face. You go into his living room and
it's the history of my country Ghana, 50-plus years. He has photographs. He
has newspaper cuttings. He had just everything that was proof that he had
lived through the history of my country. I was born just after independence.
Ghana gained its independence in '67, I was born in '58.
And yet here is this African-American, honorary Ghanaian telling me about my
country's history. He was truly, truly a man I salute. We say Dr. Lee
(foreign language spoken). Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for
coming to Ghana. Thank you for believing in Ghanaians. And thank you for
staying in Ghana and living through the good and the bad times with you.
(Foreign language spoken).
MARTIN: And finally, he still retained his affection for the United States.
When you interviewed him last year, you asked him if he might wish to sing a
song for President Obama, and this is what he told you. Here it is.
Dr. LEE: He would butt in want to sing that, (singing) God bless America, la
la la la, and beside her and guide her. Like that. Something like that.
QUIST-ARCTON: Keep going.
Dr. LEE: (Singing) On the mountains, through the prairie, through the ocean
white with foam. God bless America, my home sweet home.
MARTIN: That was Dr. Robert Lee, a leader in the African-American community
in Ghana. He moved to the country in the mid-1950s from South Carolina. He
died on Monday, July 5th at the age of 90. And that was him being
interviewed by our own Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa
correspondent. And she was kind enough to join us to tell us about his life
and influence. Ofeibea, thank you so much for bringing us this lovely story.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Lee (foreign language spoken), rest in perfect peace. You
deserve it. Thank you, Michel.
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Elizabeth K. Asante