Lee James Bennett last surviving coach, of famed Cannon Street YMCA Little League Team
Clarice Lemon’s father never attended high school, which was not unusual for a man born in the early 20th century. But he put all six of his children, five daughters and a son, through college.
There was no question that Lee James Bennett believed in getting a good education, Lemon says.
Being educated and having good manners were recurrent themes in his conversations, Lemon says. That was true whether he was shepherding his own children or advising other young people he coached on several teams in the community.
“We’re all so proud of him,” Lemon says. “He was a good dad,” she says of the former rigger at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, who usually is praised for his association with the Little League legacy he helped to create.
Bennett, who was born July 22, 1922, and died Dec. 5, was a coach for the Cannon Street YMCA Little League in 1955. It was the only chartered African-American Little League program in South Carolina. When each of the 61 chartered white teams refused to play them in postseason games, the youths could not qualify to play in the Little League World Series.
“It was no mystery to him why it happened,” says Lemon, citing racial discrimination. “He was disappointed for them. The coaches tried not to make a big deal about it, and they decided to go ahead and take the guys to the World Series (in Williamsport, Pa.) for the experience, to be in the atmosphere.”
Bennett was interested in doing what was best for them, despite the circumstances, she says.
The story is recounted in the 2011 book “Let Them Play (True Story)” by Margo Theis Raven and Chris Ellison.
Bennett was a man who regularly served his family, church and neighbors, she says. Her father, who also once was an upholsterer in a shop downtown, would upholster pieces for his home, his neighbors’ homes and his church, Mother Emanuel on Calhoun Street.
He’d spend hours in his garage with his foot pedaling his old Singer sewing machine, turning out remade chairs and cornices and embellishing pieces such as bedspreads to match. He eventually bought a more modern machine but kept his old-fashioned ways, which included making pillows from scrap fabric to present as gifts, no matter the occasion.
“He didn’t have any formal training,” Lemon says. “When it came to making patterns, he just had an eye for it. When I got married, he actually dressed the pulpit. He also upholstered the chairs that the children (at Emanuel) now use in Sunday school.
“Church was a place where he was very comfortable,” Lemon says. “You could worship the way you wanted, but you had to go to church. My oldest sister was a sister of Notre Dame in Baltimore.”
Bennett did a lot with his hands, Lemon says, describing her father as a clever man.
“He made signs with tiny sticks that were like puzzles,” she says. She and her siblings enjoyed looking at them from a distance and being able to find the word “Jesus” in his creations. He also made ones for each of his children with their names on them.
As was often the case with the upholstery he did for others, he created the tiny little stick structures from scrap wood, and saw to it that someone who would enjoy it received it at no charge.
“He was just a family-oriented person,” Lemon says.
Being attuned to what his family needed included teaching his children frugality and responsibility.
“When you graduated from college and were living at home, you paid rent, but when you left, he and my mother (Josephine Whaley Bennett) gave it all back to you.”
He cared deeply about his larger community, but always kept his family’s needs in sight, she says.
“We didn’t always have what we wanted,” Lemon says. “But we always had what we needed.”