Barbara Jean Lee was born in El Paso at a time when the city was known for its entrenched discrimination against blacks and Hispanics.
When Lee's mother, Mildred, began having labor pains, she had a hard time trying to get Hotel Dieu hospital to admit her because she was black. The Daughters of Charity had founded the hospital, but by then the premier health facility was turning away black-skinned patients.
Her mother needed a cesarean section, and given her worsening condition and the protests of relatives, the hospital was forced to admit her to its emergency room. Instead of a C-section, doctors used forceps to pull Barbara Lee through the birth canal, a procedure that nearly killed the mother and daughter.
That was the world Lee was born into in 1946.
"I came out fighting," Lee said. "Because of racism, my mother almost died and I almost didn't get born. I lived in El Paso when there was a lot of segregation and discrimination.
"But I also spent my childhood in a very diverse community of Latinos, whites and blacks. Those early years created in me a passion for justice and equality for everyone."
Today, Lee, 65, is one of the most prominent lawmakers in the U.S. Congress. She's had a brilliant career in politics, first as a state representative and state senator in California, and then as a U.S. representative for the state's 9th Congressional District, which includes Berkeley and Oakland.
Lee will be the featured speaker today at the Black El Paso Democrats
Black History Month celebration at the Wyndham Airport Hotel.
"I was impressed when I met her two years ago," said Don Williams, chairman of Black El Paso Democrats. "She acknowledges where she came from and what it took for her to get where she is today. She epitomizes the Democratic Party's platform."
Lee's list of accolades appears endless: the National Association of People with AIDS Positive Leadership Award, National Parks Service Association Award, Northern California Peace Alliance Legislative Peace Builder of the Year, National Urban League Congressional Leadership Award, Physicians for Human Rights Award at the Mexico International AIDS Conference, and many more.
She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was recognized as a Woman of Peace by the Global Exchange Human Rights Awards in 2003, along with Bianca Jagger.
Rowman & Littlefield published Lee's book, "Renegade for Peace & Justice" in 2008, first as a hardcover book and later as a paperback.
"I've always wanted to see the inside of the Plaza Theatre in El Paso," Lee said. "But, when I was young, blacks were not allowed to go in. I couldn't understand then why things were that way when I had friends from all backgrounds."
Lee attended St. Joseph's Elementary School, where she said she received a good education. She also took music and piano lessons from Drusilla Nixon, wife of Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, an activist doctor who successfully helped to abolish the all-white Demo cratic Party primary in Texas.
"I remember having to take logic and diagramming sentences. It was hard at the time, but I learned a lot and it served me well," Lee said. "I was on the drill team and was very active in all sorts of school activities."
Her father, who was an Army officer stationed at Fort Bliss, her mother and two sisters lived in a home on Yandell Drive in Central El Paso.
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