El Franco Lee, state legislator and the first African American elected to county commissioner in Harris County, was born on January 30, 1949, at Saint Elizabeth Hospital in Houston to parents Robert and Selma Lee. When Lee was six, his parents divorced, and his father moved to New York. He was the second youngest of five siblings and grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Lee graduated from Phyllis Wheatley Senior High where he participated on both the track and field and swim teams.
At a young age, Lee wanted to be a civil engineer. He attended San Jacinto College and then transferred to Texas Southern University to pursue a degree in civil technology. Lee also went on to earn post graduate degrees from both Texas Southern University and the University of Houston. He married Ethel Kaye Kingsberry on July 10, 1971. They had two children. After graduation, Lee went to work for an engineering firm in Houston and eventually established his own firm, ESPA Corp.
Lee credited his career in politics to a series of events. His older brother, Robert, was involved in non-traditional politics in Chicago and was an activist for the Black Panther Party. Lee was exposed to some of the projects of the party, such as the establishment of free health clinics and free breakfast programs, and became inspired by neighborhood programs that helped disadvantaged youth and seniors. Along with his friend George “Mickey” Leland, Lee went to doctors and medical students at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to pitch the formation of a free health clinic. This partnership also influenced Lee’s involvement with politics. Lee, a Democrat, began grassroots campaigning efforts for Mickey Leland’s 1972 campaign as a hobby, with no interest in getting involved with politics himself.
After much persuasion, Lee ran for and won the office of Texas State Representative for District 88 in 1978. The seat had been vacated by Leland, who had won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Lee served from 1979 to 1985 in the Sixty-sixth through Sixty-eighth Texas legislatures. During his tenure he served on a number of committees, including Business and Industry, Intergovernmental Affairs, Environmental Affairs, and Elections (in which he served as chair).
After his service in the Texas Legislature, Lee ran for the open Harris County commissioner’s seat in 1984. He won and was the first African American elected to county commissioner in Harris County and was the youngest person on the county court by twenty years.
As county commissioner for Precinct No. 1, which stretches from downtown Houston to southeast Harris County, Lee created a host of community programs and facilities that served inner-city residents, with a focus on youth and senior citizens, and strived to revitalize the community. One of his most popular programs was the “Street Olympics”—a summer program in which youth across the county competed in common games and activities such as marbles, kickball, hopscotch, basketball, and more. The repurposing and revitalization of parks was also a huge part of Lee’s career. In 1986 Lee named Challenger Seven Memorial Park to honor the seven astronauts who perished in the Challenger space shuttle explosion. Hall Road Park was revitalized and renamed El Franco Lee Park in 1990. He also led efforts for the George “Mickey” Leland Memorial Park, which was dedicated in 2000. In 1992 the Harris County Aquatics Program (HCAP) was created and was given a state-of-the-art aquatic facility in 2009. Also in 2009 the El Franco Lee Health Center opened as a part of the Harris County Hospital District.
Lee, a Catholic, served as county commissioner for Precinct No. 1 for more than thirty years and was a Fifth Ward resident for his entire life. El Franco Lee died of a heart attack on January 3, 2016. He was sixty-six years old. He is survived by his wife Ethel Kaye and children, Franchelle and El Franco, Jr. A funeral Mass was held at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, followed by a private burial service.