Regal, elegant, classy, stable, warm, tender and a champion for justice.
These were only a few words used to describe Judge Helen Shores Lee on Friday as hundreds filled First Congregational Church on Center Street in West Birmingham to honor the life of community giant who passed on July 2 at the age of 77.
Rev. A.B. Sutton officiated and delivered the eulogy during the celebration of Judge Lee’s life and legacy. Those in attendance included U.S. Sen. Doug Jones; Democratic nominee for Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr; former Birmingham mayor William Bell; Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, pastor Rev. Calvin Woods and Foot Soldiers, including Jeff Drew.
“We see the things she has done in her life for her family, for her community and for her state and this country,” Jones said. “Not just in leading the way for Civil Rights, but making sure that all are cared for, concerned about, and spoken up for.”
Jones said he served on a number of panels and discussions with Mrs. Lee.
“The one story I remember her always telling was when she got so fed up,” Jones said. “When she was younger and she was on the front porch and some white men had come by and they were raising cane and they held a gun up. She ran back in and got a gun of her own.”
Her father, prominent late Civil Rights attorney Arthur Shores, took the gun from her and taught her to fight for Civil Rights and Jim Crow laws “the right way,” Jones said.
“She listened, she learned, she truly learned at the foot of a giant (Shores),” Jones said.
Lee’s neighborhood of Smithfield was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan so many times it was called “Dynamite Hill.” The Shores home was bombed twice within a two-week period during the summer of 1963, injuring Lee’s mother and killing the family’s pet. There were also bullets shot at their home.
Mrs. Lee was the first African-American woman to serve as judge on the Jefferson County (Alabama) Circuit Court. She was appointed a circuit judge for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Alabama in January 2003 by former Gov. Don Siegelman. She retired in early 2017.
Former Birmingham Mayor William Bell said he grew up knowing about Arthur Shores and his family. Bell said he also had the pleasure of knowing her professionally when he first served on the City Council in 1979.
“She wanted to be a magistrate for the city,” he said. “When I sat down with her, I didn’t really know what she was going to ask. But she started pulling out resumes and telling me who she was. I said, ‘Helen, I know who you are.’ She said, ‘No, this is a professional meeting.’ By the time she finished, I already knew what the answer would be.”
Bell said, “The things she did accomplish, she did it out of love, she did it for her family. Helen leaves a great legacy, not just for her family, but for this entire community. A legacy is a strange thing. You can do three things with a legacy: You can ignore it and run away from it, you can let the weight of it destroy you, or you can stand on that legacy and build on that legacy.
He continued, “she stood on that legacy and built on that legacy and she passed it on to each and every one of you.” Bell then said to the family. “So we’re grateful to God that He allowed us to have … Helen Shores Lee in our life. Carry that legacy with pride.”
Judge Houston Brown of the 10th Judicial Circuit was her neighbor growing up in Smithfield, living across the street from her.
“Two girls in the Shores home and two boys in the Brown home,” Brown said. “Our fathers were fraternity brothers and our mothers, teachers. It didn’t take long for a brother-sister relationship to form.”
They had friendship and respect for one another, Brown said.
“My heart is heavy, I have lost a dear friend who I truly, deeply loved,” he said. “A sister who was always there for support; a colleague who was always professional, respectful and fair to all . . . we never had one bad word between the two of us.”
Mrs. Lee’s former college roommate, Susan Alexander, said they had 58 years of friendships.
“Helen took a detour from Fisk University to West at a one-year college and we became roommates,” said Alexander, godmother to Mrs. Lee’s children, said. “I don’t remember much about that time except we went to my parents’ house for good food, and she went to LA to get her hair done because there weren’t a lot of places around us that could do her hair.”
Alexander said Mrs. Lee moved back to Fisk University from California, where she graduated, but returned to the West Coast.
Alexander said Mrs. Lee explained why she came back to California. “She said ‘if I stayed in Birmingham I would have shot somebody,’” Alexander said lightheartedly.
Alexander eventually moved to Alabama for Mrs. Lee, she said. “It’s all about friendship and I will miss my friend. “But I say to my godchildren, your mother and I had each other’s back, and I hope to God you know I’ve got yours and I love you.”
After the funeral, Alexander said, “There were so many stories and so many great times, and she was one of my best friends.”
“The only thing we disagreed on in 58 years was Elvis Presley,” Alexander said. “I liked him and she said, ‘All he did was steal black music.’”
Mrs. Lee was born on May 3, 1941 to the late Arthur Shores and Theodora Warren Shores. She grew up in the Smithfield neighborhood with her parents and younger sister, Barbara.
She is survived by her husband Robert Lee, her children, Robert Jr., Arthur Shores Lee, Keisha, Vincent, Ashlee, Trenton and Trevon and her sister Barbara S. Shores.