Nowadays, no one would bat an eye to see an African-American sitting in the executive chair at a large bank.
It was different when Aubrey Lee started out in the 1950s in the segregated South.
But Lee’s not one to shy away from a more pioneering path. He went to a predominantly white college, and the career that followed took him from an entry-level position to the C-suite. In the process, he played a pivotal role in helping Detroit’s black business community rise.
Lee’s hand can be seen in the careers of influential people such as New Detroit President and CEO Shirley Stancato, former Mayor Dave Bing and Emmett Moten, DoubleTree Fort Shelby co-owner and longtime Detroit development figure.
For many prominent Detroiters, Lee either got them into banking or helped finance their early enterprises.
Lee is credited as the first African-American to take a managerial role at the National Bank of Detroit in 1966. Lee used that role to bring more African-Americans in as employees and managers, and to extend commercial loans to minorities. “Trailblazer” is the word that comes up when people talk about him.
Lee, now 79, is described as a person who understood the value of relationship-building early in his career.
“Everybody knew of Mr. Aubrey Lee,” said Stancato, who worked as an NBD regional manager under Lee early in her career. “He was a hero among us.”
Those who worked with Lee say he knew everyone and gained their respect through attentiveness and competence, able to glide through the worlds of small-business owners and corporate chairmen alike.
“That’s the special touch he had. Both sides respected his ability,” said Moten. “If I need help, I know who to call on. I have unbelievable respect for Aubrey.”
Growing up in his hometown of Huntington, W.Va., Lee figured he’d spend his college days at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He did attend there his freshman year, made possible by the savings of his grandmother, a live-in maid in New York, who before then spent most of her life picking cotton and vowing her grandchildren would go to college.
The 1954-55 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court rulings allowed Lee to attend school closer to home at state-supported West Virginia State University. The lower tuition meant he could afford to pay for it himself by taking a summer custodial job at an Elks Lodge. He followed that with graduate school at Marshall University, just eight blocks from his family home.
He also joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, serving in the U.S. Army Reserves for eight years after graduation, working his way up to captain.
Lee earned a master’s degree in political science with minors in economics and sociology in 1956 at age 21. That was good enough to get him a job, but not the one he wanted. Despite his credentials, he couldn’t find a job for the management trainee roles he sought.
“At that time, the best job I could get was as a bank teller,” Lee said. “That was not unusual. … You had black college graduates glad to be working at the post office.”
A black friend from West Virginia State who already had a job as a teller helped Lee get his foot in the door at NBD. Lee soon learned that bankers were expected to wear blue shirts — never white — and not have mustaches.
By the time he retired from the bank in 1999, he’d risen to senior vice president and head of the municipal banking group, just after NBD had morphed into Bank One. (It later merged into Chase Bank.) Lee hit every conceivable rung on the ladder to get there: teller, head teller, assistant manager, senior assistant manager, branch manager, regional manager and a number of vice president titles.
In 1980, he became chairman, president and CEO of NBD Troy Bank, a division of NBD, and later served in senior vice president roles in the main corporate offices.
When Lee hit the branch manager rung in 1966, he was the first African-American at NBD to do so. He’s quick to point out that the bank had him working with white employees and customers all the while — it wasn’t just for show.
“At that time, it took a lot of guts for white people to say, ‘He’s a good guy, he has potential,’ ” he said.
Not long after that, he worked, in yet another of his many roles, as an HR staff assistant. Lee was asked to help with recruiting, specifically with recruiting college minorities for management trainee jobs. The request smarted at first, because he had his mind on other pursuits, but then he embraced it.
The group recruited about 50 trainees a year and only a handful were black. But it was a start, and because NBD was the leading bank in town, it encouraged others to follow suit.
Lee’s hand touched the careers of people such as former Detroit development officer Walt Watkins, who was hired by Lee as a management trainee and would eventually go on to become president of the bank, and Global Automotive Alliance LLC Chairman and CEO William Pickard, whose long entrepreneurial career began with the opening of a McDonald’s franchise, financed by Lee at NBD, Lee said.
Another was Dave Bing.
Bing first encountered NBD in 1966, when as a 22-year-old fresh from being selected by the Detroit Pistons as the second overall draft pick, tried to get a mortgage to buy a house for himself, his wife and two children.
He was rejected. It wasn’t because he was black. It was because “I was a professional athlete. They didn’t think I was a good risk,” Bing said.
Bing ended up getting a mortgage from Manufacturers Bank, now part of Comerica. As he made his way through his first year, picking up a Rookie of the Year award along the way, he was contacted by Lee to see if he was interested in a job as a management trainee.
“He explained to me he thought they’d made a mistake by not offering me the mortgage, and this was a makeup, if you will,” Bing said.
Bing worked the off-season for seven years, starting as a teller, then head teller and assistant branch manager. During his first year on the job, 1967, the riots broke out. NBD moved him to work as a teller at the Grand River and Lothrop branch — “one of the areas that was real hot” — to make sure its image was in line with the changing times.
Bing continued working even when he didn’t need the extra money. “I still wanted to work because it kept me grounded, kept me in contact with everyday people,” he said.
By the time Bing retired from basketball and began planning a business, he knew plenty of people at NBD who could help. Lee had recruited four or five African-Americans who’d moved up to become executives, including Ed Tinsley, who provided Bing the $150,000 loan that, along with $150,000 of Bing’s own money, launched Bing Steel Inc.
“Fortunately for me, the guys moving up the ranks … made it very easy for me,” Bing said.
Lee’s presence in the upper echelon of banking management helped a great deal, he said.
“A lot of black customers would come into the bank and see somebody in the management area that was African-American. It made them happy and they gravitated to it. After the riots, race became a big issue. People were not comfortable going to a white manager. They thought, ‘I’m not going to waste my time,’ ” Bing said. “It was important to see somebody who looked like you, with dignity.”
Lee came up during a time when accusations were flying about banks “redlining” minorities out of access to credit.
“I wouldn’t say ‘accusations’ — it may have been true,” Lee said. He declined to comment beyond that, saying he could only speak for the Detroit-area activity in his view at the time.
“Our objective was to try to make loans to people who deserved them,” regardless of ethnicity, he said.
In the early 1970s, Lee also worked with the Detroit Urban League on a hiring drive to get more black employees.
Then he started working in the credit department, becoming the bank’s first black lender, and part of his job was to step up commercial minority lending.
“A lot of things were happening in Detroit, a lot of it probably due to the riots. Other banks were looking at how you make loans to minorities,” he said. “By this time in Detroit, you had a lot of people trying to do things which we had never done before. … It was a completely different atmosphere. In fact, it was kind of exciting. We were young.”
Lee handled small-business loans, from tool-and-die shops to fast-food restaurants, and he also was known as a lender to churches, such as Greater Grace Temple.
Lee helped African-American businesses and churches by being generous with his time, making multiple visits to go through what it took to get a loan and how to get prepared. He mentored employees, be they black or white, male or female. He spoke at schools and community events.
He gave the same personal attention and advice to employees to help them with their careers, Stancato said.
“He elevated many of us to higher positions,” said Stancato, who started working at NBD as a machine operator in the late ’60s, having applied for a job to help pay for college.
NBD loaned Lee to new Mayor Coleman Young to serve as a senior staffer on the council that ultimately led to the formation of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. under its first president, Robert Spencer. Lee did research and traveled to other cities to look at their development efforts.
The leadership wanted African-Americans in prominent roles at the new DEGC, so Lee set out in search of a respected administrator for the role of vice president. He heard about a mayoral assistant in New Orleans named Emmett Moten, who it turned out had zero interest in the job when Lee began twisting his arm.
“He kept going and going … pestering in a constructive way,” Moten said of Lee’s phone calls, until Moten relented and visited Detroit.
Moten said he was surprised at how clean Detroit was, that it wasn’t like what he’d heard (some themes never change) and took the job of vice president of community development.
One of the DEGC’s first noticeable projects was a small-business development effort in 1979 in Southwest Detroit, in the area of West Vernor Highway and Springwells Street. Lee supplied lines of credit from NBD for the pilot program that was emulated elsewhere in the city, Moten said. Business development from the pilot program kick-started neighborhood revitalization in an area of town that has tracked population gains thanks to steady influxes of immigrants.
“Aubrey was the guy who created the bone and then put the meat on the bone,” Moten said of Lee’s work on the DEGC.
Lee wasn’t an activist. The work of integration undertaken by him and his white managers came about because they thought it was time, Lee said.
So he didn’t hold picket signs or lead boycotts, but he can be thought of as being on the other side of that coin. If, after the protests went quiet, there still was no one like him to give the loan, job or advice that led a black family into the mainstream of American life, then what had all the noise been for? It’s the calm, competent professionals within institutions that ultimately are needed to make things happen, one person at a time, black business leaders say.
“They can’t be on the front lines jumping up and down, but once you need help — they need to be there,” Moten said.
Those quietly working behind the walls of banks and other institutions are less visible but just as important as those doing sit-ins, Stancato said. “The ones outside picketing get in the newspaper and get a microphone in their face. Those inside don’t — and that’s fine with them.”
Lee did make the newspapers for one 1990s racial controversy, albeit in a side role, when the Bloomfield Hills Country Club rejected the application of then-General Motors executive Roy Roberts, an African-American who most recently stepped down from a post as the city’s chief land officer, and previously served as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools.
When the club eventually accepted Roberts, it asked Lee to join at the same time, which he did. Lee knew many people in the club already through his work on the board of Beaumont Hospital.
“They didn’t want (just) one black person to go in,” Lee said.
Lee’s resume includes a long list of the sorts of recognitions and leadership awards one would expect, and the list continues to grow. Troy based-Walsh College announced this month it will award Lee an honorary doctor of laws degree at its commencement in June. He’s been a member of Walsh’s board of trustees since 1984.
The Detroit Regional Chamber in October gave Lee a lifelong leadership award, and last month Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit held a private reception to honor his work.
Lee’s said that despite the accolades, he doesn’t want to convey to the world that he’s finished giving back.
“I’m not done,” he said.
Lee is an emeritus member of Beaumont Health System‘s board, and lives in Orchard Lake with his wife, Jeane.
Jeane and Aubrey met while they were in college and married in 1956. She came from Ashland, Ky., up the Ohio River a few miles from Lee’s West Virginia hometown. She, along with one of her brothers, was among a group of about five students who were the first African-Americans to attend Ashland Junior College just after the Brown v. Board rulings.
“It was within walking distance, but we were not allowed to go there” before the rulings, Jeane said.
The Lees have three sons — Aubrey Jr., David and Mark — and four grandchildren. Jeane, also retired, worked for Ford Motor Co. in business administration, marketing, legal and other capacities. She has been a volunteer at Beaumont for 20 years and active with Care House of Oakland County and the Arthritis Foundation.
Jeane said she and her husband worked hard to build a comfortable life, a stark contrast to her rural Kentucky roots. She speaks openly about the value of hard work.
“We worked very hard to get where we are,” she said. “Don’t just sit back and wait for someone to give something to you.”
Aubrey Lee notes what a different world it is to see his grandchildren easily getting into schools in their home state of Michigan.
He also worries about the ethics of the world, not just in banking with what happened in the subprime mortgage crisis, but in general. He prefers the measured logic of the banker that served him so well in his career.
“Here’s the banker in me. I get more things done by being nice, logical and smart than I do to be knocking you,” he said.
“If I can’t say something good about you, I’ll tell you. I’m not going to go out and say that to the world. That’s always been my philosophy. As a banker, I can’t afford to be knocking you.”