Barrier Breakers – Mercile Lee

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By KJ LeFave

Headshot of Mercile Lee.
Mercile J. Lee.[1]

When confronted with the term “nonviolent activism,” a certain image comes to mind for many people. Marches, sit-ins, and lobbying are well known forms of nonviolent activism, and are the methods that usually garner the most attention. However, nonviolent activism is much more broad than that. One of the most impactful methods of nonviolent activism at UW-Madison can be found in scholarships, the Chancellor Scholarship and Powers-Knapp Scholarship, now known as the Mercile Lee Scholars Program. This program, named after Mercile Lee, a lifelong advocate for Civil Rights and racial equality, aims “to attract, support and develop the abilities and potential of academically talented and outstanding individuals from underrepresented groups.”[2] Unquestionably, the establishment of these scholarship initiatives is an exemplary manifestation of Mercile Lee’s commitment to activism and empowerment.

Born in the rural town of Chase City, Virginia, Lee was no stranger to discrimination growing up. Segregation was a reality for Lee, her parents, and her eleven other siblings. In an interview with the Rotary Club of Madison after receiving the Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award, Lee described how as a kid, the school bus would only transport white students to and from school.[3] As a result, her father, Mack Henry Johnson, was forced to pay teachers to drive his children to school.[4] However, after a while, Mr. Johnson decided to take matters into his own hands and purchased a bus to transport his children, and other children of color in the community, to and from school.[5] This commitment to education displayed by Lee’s father, informed Lee’s journey in higher education and the nonviolent activism she participated in.

Prior to receiving her master’s and doctorate, the first in her family to do so, from Hartford Seminary, now called Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, Lee graduated with a B.A. in education and philosophy from Virginia Union University, a historically Black institution in Richmond.[6] While at Virginia Union University, Lee befriended Martin Luther King Jr. after serving as his guide during a visit to campus.[7] Following her graduation from Hartford Seminary, Lee became the first faculty of color at Ottawa University in Kansas.[8] During her stint at Ottawa University, Lee worked as a professor of psychology, professor of counseling, and chairperson of both the education and psychology departments.[9] Her impact at Ottawa was monumental, to the point that “she was asked to serve on the Board of Trustees in 1990, and upon retirement, was given the status of Life Member of the Board.”[10]

A group of eight people standing.
Mercile Lee, third from left, receiving the Manfred Swarsenky Humanitarian Service Award in 2014, courtesy of Madison Rotary Club. [11]

Lee’s commitment and success in the advancement of others, specifically members of marginalized communities, is reflected in her many accolades. In addition to receiving the Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award from the Madison Rotary club and being deemed a Life Member of the Ottawa University Board of Trustees, Lee was also presented with the City of Madison and Dane County’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award, the YWCA Women of Distinction Award, and the University of Wisconsin Outstanding Women of Color Award.[12] These awards came as a result of her involvement not only with the university, but also her work with Dane County Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Urban League of Greater Madison, the Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin and the Madison/Dane County Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition, of which Lee was a founding member.[13]

While Lee’s recognition and community involvement is vast, she is arguably most well known for her work to advance minority populations at UW. After Lee’s death, former Chancellor Rebecca Blank regarded Lee as a force for good at the university, stating that “Mercile changed lives – and this university – in profound ways. Her work to grow initiates like the Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp scholarship programs has been deeply important to our ability to attract top students from diverse backgrounds. She was a crucial advisor and mentor to generations of students in these programs, helping them succeed.”[14] Started by Lee in 1984 and 1989, respectively, the Chancellor and Powers-Knapp Scholarships have assisted over 2,6000 undergraduate students from marginalized communities.[15] These scholarships provide full tuition for both Wisconsin residents and non-residents, as well as a textbook stipend each semester.[16] Phill Goss, graduate of UW-Madison and donor to the scholarship program, said of Lee, “it didn’t matter where they came from, or what their race was, or what their family background was like; we knew Mercile would improve their standing and the standing of their future generations by making sure they were the best they could possibly be.”[17]

Mercile Lee lived and breathed accessibility and empowerment for students of marginalized communities. Her activism was deeply informed by her father  who advocated for his children despite segregation and other barriers, which Lee herself fought in her support of her mentor, MLK Jr. Taking with her what she learned at Virginia Union University, she broke barriers at Ottawa University in Kansas where she was the first in her family to earn a graduate degree and was the first faculty of color at the university. At Ottawa, her impact was immeasurable, a legacy she carried over when she began working at UW-Madison. At UW, she changed the lives of thousands of students and their families by founding and expanding the Chancellor and Powers-Knapp Scholarship, now named the Mercile Lee Scholarship Program, which provides full tuition and textbook stipends to students from disenfranchised communities. Lee’s commitment to nonviolent activism via accessibility and empowerment through scholarships has been felt across the UW-Madison community, and Lee continues to serve as a beacon for nonviolent activism even in death. To quote Lee herself, “true understanding of ourselves and one another is liberating. We cannot be defeated or intimidated, and we cannot rise above others at the expense of others.”[18] These values that she believed in so greatly will continue on at UW through her work and its ceaseless impact.

[1] Bryce Richter, Mercile Lee.

[2]Home – Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program,” Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program.

[3] Jayne Coster, “Mercile Lee Receives 2013 Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award,” Rotary Club of Madison, Wisconsin, November 21, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cress Funeral and Cremation Services, “Mercile Johnson Lee Obituary,” Cress Funeral and Cremation Services, October, 2018.

[7]Mercile Lee, Guiding Force behind Prominent UW–Madison Scholarships, Dies at 87,” News, October 31, 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Coster, “Mercile Lee Receives 2013 Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award.”

[10] Cress Funeral and Cremation Services, “Mercile Johnson Lee Obituary.”

[11] Rabbi Manfred E. Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award Program on November 12, 2014, Rotary Club of Madison.

[12] Cress Funeral And Cremation Cervices, “Mercile Johnson Lee Obituary.”

[13] Ibid.

[14]Mercile Lee, Guiding Force behind Prominent UW–Madison Scholarships, Dies at 87.”

[15] Ibid.

[16]Program Overview – Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program,” Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program.

[17]A Scholarship Inspired by Love,” On Wisconsin, 2019.

[18] Coster, “Mercile Lee Receives 2013 Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award.”