Tom Lee Legend

May 9, 1925

Twenty people were killed when the stern wheel steamer M.E. Norman sank just off Memphis — “turned turtle” as the newspaper put it — but much of The CA’s attention was on the heroics of a young black man who saved at least another 20 from drowning.

Tom Lee became a Memphis legend; one of the city’s premier parks is named in his honor.

A real hero of the disaster was Tom Lee, negro, who happened along in his gasoline launch just as the boat made its final plunge. He handled the situation like a general. With lightning speed he began to pull people into his boat, women and children first. With the same speed, he safely landed, and battling the currents went back for another boat load. Repeating this same four or five times, he saved some 20 or more people who probably would have otherwise been lost.

Survivors were fond in their praise for the work of Tom.

Too much cannot be said for Tom,” declared A.S. Fry of Memphis, who was one of the survivors. “He was a real general and handled the situation as cool and gathered as any soldier could.

Tom followed up his job. After the last boat load was brought to shore, he began to make them comfortable, helped many of the injured to a nearby cabin and administered to their needs in a fashion that called forth the praise of members of the group.

Within a couple weeks, Lee was being honored by President Calvin Coolidge


Tom Lee's legacy is quite prominent in Memphis even to this day. A granite monument and bronze sculpture stand in what is now known as Tom Lee Park, 30 acres nestled between the Mississippi River and Riverside drive.