Long-time Resident Scratches His Place in Santa Monica's History
February 10, 2021 1:12 PM
by Eric Bailey
As part of the City of Santa Monica’s Black History Month celebrations, here is a profile highlighting the life and contributions of long-time resident Archie Lee.
The crisp crackling of cue balls slamming into the racked-up solids and stripes, dispersing them all over the felt-covered pool tables at the Speakeasy on Pico, is a sound that has long since been heard. Prior to the pandemic, one local resident enjoyed spending time shooting billiards to keep him busy during his retirement.
Archie Lee, long-time Santa Monica resident, husband, and father of two, has woven his own fine tapestry within the fabric of history, creating for himself a life many would consider being one historical feat after another.
Not only was Lee able to craft a life in the tech industry decades before the region was dubbed “Silicon Beach,” he just so happened to start his education with 84 other black students who attended one of the South’s first integrated schools in his hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee in September 1955.
“Oak Ridge [High School] was the first public school to integrate in the South,” Lee said in an excerpt from Celebrating 75 Years of Excellence in Education in the Oak Ridge Schools: 1943-2018. “Perhaps our transition was too well-planned and community-supported, meaning there was no National Guard called in and no obvious acts of disruption to catch media attention.”
With a smoother transition than many other schools that began to integrate, Lee delved into his studies and began to acclimate to his new surroundings.
“There were much more difficult classes at Oak Ridge [High School] that we didn’t have at the segregated school,” Lee said. “So when I got there I majored in sciences and math.”
Lee was optimistic about the education he now had access to.
We didn’t have mathematics, [or] sciences that we should,” Lee said. “When the schools were integrated, we had a much better curriculum.”
Lee took full advantage of what he considered to be a much better curriculum and succeeded, becoming the first Black person named to Oak Ridge High’s National Honor Society chapter.
Wilson Lindsey, the Oak Ridge High guidance counselor, who Lee credits for helping him cram as many math and science classes that scheduling would permit, also encouraged Archie’s dreams of college, but the University of Tennessee refused his admission application despite a stellar academic resume. The university would not admit the first Black undergrad student until January 1961.
Able to secure a $500 scholarship through the Oak Ridge chapter B’Nai B’Rith, an international Jewish advocacy organization, Lee attended one year of an accelerated program at the Indiana Institute of Technology to pursue an engineering degree. Unable to find sufficient employment to fund his second year at IIT, he left his dorm housing and moved back to Oak Ridge where he worked a number of odd jobs.
Lee responded to a classified ad for a start-up company that was in search of a lab technician. After a successful interview, Lee was hired by ORTEC, where he worked for two years building nuclear detectors.
After learning that a White employee he hired and trained with was paid twice as much as he was, Lee inquired as to why he was being paid half the wage for the same amount of work. His superiors insisted that the wage discrepancy in their wages was because his colleague “had to pay more rent for where he lived.”
“Well maybe I’d like to live where he lives,” Lee said.
The discriminatory practices from ORTEC prompted Lee to explore other opportunities. After submitting a flurry of job applications, he secured an interview with the vice president of Solid-State Radiation in West L.A. on Christmas Eve of 1962. In early 1963, Lee set his sights on California and settled in his new home in Santa Monica, where he has lived since.
Lee wasted no time gaining professional experience, using his experience with semiconductor lasers to get a job with the nearby Korad Corporation, founded by Theodore Maiman, the celebrated “father of the laser.” At Korad, Lee worked with a team that developed the first lasers to prevent missiles from striking aircrafts, tested at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in 1965.
Even with his work, Lee was able to further his education as well, attending Santa Monica College from 1964-67, and extension classes at UCLA from 1968-71.
“I have 34 units in grad school but no degree because you have to spend a year on campus,” Lee said.
Lee was able to secure work closer to home going to work for Douglas Aircraft (then on Ocean Park Boulevard and 26th Street; now the Santa Monica Business Park).
“My supervisor at the time had got a job at Douglas as the head of the electronics department and asked me if I wanted to go along with him,” said Lee.
“We went there [in 1966] and started our semiconductor laser program there.”
Lee followed Douglas to its relocation to Huntington Beach and worked there until 1973, when the aerospace industry experienced layoffs. He ended up at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu where he continued his work with semiconductors and fiber optics up until his retirement in 1987.
“I suppose there are people who say I’m successful,” Lee said. “I am but I made it the hard way.”
Lee kept busy within the community as well. Despite an unsuccessful run for the Santa Monica Rent Control Board in 1978, he served as an election poll worker in his precinct from 1990-2000.
He also found a love for billiards and even developed quite the reputation in a local pool league.
“Every memory I have of Archie he was always smiling,” said Mike Schwartz, secretary and treasurer of the Westside 8-Ball League, where Lee spent the early years of his retirement cracking cue balls. “Every time I saw him at the Speakeasy he was grinning.”
Co-author of a handful of research papers and holder to a number of patents, Lee didn’t hold his willingness or ability to teach to just the tech industry.
“Archie had these crazy shots that would have the cue ball bounce of the bumper four or five times before it would touch another ball,” Schwartz said. “He was always happy to teach people a few of his moves.”
COVID has impacted much of what we all know as normalcy, and Lee is no different. He was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at a 2020 ceremony in his hometown of Oak Ridge to commemorate the 85 students integrated that has since been postponed.
“I am fearful of flying, and of a possible chance of exposure to the coronavirus,” he told a reporter from the Oak Ridger, his hometown’s local paper.
He hopes he can make the rescheduled event this upcoming summer to tell subsequent generations of his story and continue to be living history.