Legends of Diving Articles


Miss Shirley Lee
First Black Female Diver

Shirley M. Lee was born on September 26, 1935 in Alexandria, Virginia and recalls a happy childhood of playing marbles, jacks, and jumping rope.
Miss Shirley Lee
Gifted with artistic talent, she could look at an object and draw it accurately. Shirley was extremely active in high school, participating on the baseball and soccer teams, singing in the choir, and serving as both drum majorette and cheerleader. It was quite obvious from an early age that Shirley was not one to just sit back and watch, but anxious to dive right into life and experience it fully.

Even as a young girl, Shirley had a love for the water and spent her summers at the pool, becoming a lifeguard at the age of 16. She would continue to work as a lifeguard after high school and married Lovell Lee in 1958 at the age of 23.
Miss Shirley Lee
and Dr. Jones
Shirley eventually became manager of swimming pools and after her two sons were born would often take them with her to work.

It was in 1965, while managing the Fort Chaplin swimming pool in Washington D.C., that Shirley met Dr. Jose Jones, a founding member of The Underwater Adventures Seekers Scuba Diving Club. This meeting would change her life. Shirley asked Dr. Jones to teach her to dive and he did just that. Shirley received her basic certification that same year and was the first female to become a member of the club in 1966.

It was the beginning of a lifetime love affair with diving and one that has taken Shirley all over the world. Her diving has taken her to places as diverse as Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Bermuda, Curacao, Belize, Antigua, Haiti, and countless other islands of the Caribbean. Her travels have extended as far as Morocco, South Africa, the Red Sea in Egypt,
Miss Shirley Lee
and Dr. Jones
and to Southeast Asia where she dove off the coast of Malaysia. She has logged more than 1,000 dives over the years and was recognized by PADI with a "1,000 Dives" pin.

Shirley is a charter member of The National Association of Black Scuba Divers and has trained or helped train many divers over the years. There is no doubt that Lee has served as an inspiration and role model for hundreds of girls and women who wished to enter the world of scuba diving. She is quite possibly the most publicized female black scuba diver in America and has been featured in several magazines and books over the years; Ebony Magazine in Sept 1988, Ebony EM in Oct 1989, "The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie" in 1989, "Spirit Dive" in 1999 by Michael H Cottman, and "How They Got Over: African Americans and the Call of the Sea: in 2003 by Eloise Greenfield.

Shirley has received her share of accolades and awards over the years, and rightly so. In 1972 she took first place in the Atlantic Skin Diving Council Rodeo, Women's Category and placed first in the Women's Division Free Diving Middle Atlantic Spearfishing Championships. She received the Founders Award of the Underwater Adventures Seekers,
NABS Banquet
as well as the UAS Lifetime Service Award in 1999. Never one to slow down, Lee won first place in the UAS Swim for Fitness program in 2001 by swimming a total of 44 miles in 4 months.

The National Association of Black Scuba Divers recognized her as their Diver of the Year in 2003. She was further recognized by the group on November 7, 2009 on Grand Bahama Island when she was inducted into NABS Hall of Fame "in recognition and honor as an outstanding NABS member whose accomplishments are worthy of emulation,
Miss Shirley Lee
and has served as a source of inspiration and encouragement in the sport and profession of scuba diving."

Shirley worked for the Federal government for 30 years as a computer technician, retiring in 1999. She remains very active and besides diving, also snow skis, cycles, and roller skates. She still lives in Alexandria, Virginia and enjoys spending time with her three grandchildren, who all swim quite well, she is proud to report. With a little inspiration and encouragement from their grandmother, it is quite likely that they will develop into excellent divers themselves one day.

There is no doubt that Shirley Lee has indeed served, and continues to serve, as an inspiration and mentor to so many women who followed her lead and joined the world of scuba diving. She certainly holds a solid place among the Legends of Diving.

(ILD would like to thank Dr. Jose Jones and Shirley Lee for their photos and biographical contributions to this article.)

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