Who were “Lees” and “McRae”?

In honor of Women's History Month, Director of Library Services Jess Bellemer shares the the history of how Lees-McRae College got its name. 

Although the school was founded by Edgar Tufts, Lees-McRae College derives its name from two fascinating women. While Tufts’ legacy is evident on campus, little is said about the two women after whom he named the school. Who were Susanna Lees and Elizabeth McRae and how did the college come to be named for them? 

Elizabeth McRae originally came from Marion County, South Carolina. At 17, she married Dr. Neill McNair and had a son. Her life seemed set, but a quiet, normal life was not to be for Elizabeth. Her normal was overturned when she lost both her husband and her son during the Civil War. In her grief, she settled into her community in Robeson County, North Carolina, all the while seeking to redefine who she was as a person. The majority of the stories about her fervor for life came from her later years, so it is likely she developed her vivacity during that time in Robeson County. Eventually, she found some normalcy and solace in a second marriage to Alexander McRae. While they had no biological children of their own, Elizabeth was embraced by Alexander’s family in Wilmington. She settled in again, content with her involvement with her community and a quiet life. Still, pain and loss would not leave her be and Alexander passed away in 1881.  

Despite the change and upheaval in her life, Elizabeth refused to sit and molder in her widowhood. Rather, she organized a women’s missionary society for her church and set out to alter the state of North Carolina. Her letters, of which there are many, detail her adventures travelling all over to teach children and organize groups for women. She was known for letting nothing stand in her way: not distance, poverty, or even cantankerous men who did not want to see a woman in charge. Elizabeth toppled every hindrance that stood in her way. 

When she was 70, she struck out with her missionary group to teach the children of the North Carolina mountains for a summer. The records are hazy on whether she spent more than that one summer out west, but the summer of 1895 is well-documented. Even after returning home to Robeson County, she would regale her friends with stories of the lovely mountain summer weather and her many adventures. She told tales to an astonished audience of riding about on ox carts and even breaking her arm when she fell off one. It was likely during that 1895 summer that Edgar Tufts became acquainted with the indomitable Elizabeth McRae. Her reputation must have made a great impact on him for when it came time to name his new school, he styled it the Elizabeth McRae Institute in recognition of the work she had done to promote education and women’s position in churches. 

While Elizabeth was an educator, there is no proof that she ever even came to Banner Elk, let alone participated in the work of the Institute. All recorded educational work she did in the area took place in Cranberry, not Banner Elk, and there are no records she travelled west once the Institute had been founded.  

Like Elizabeth McRae, Susanna Lees lived a life that impacted others. Susanna was born Susanna Prescott Waller to a banking family in Kentucky. At 21, Susanna married a Virginian businessman, James Lees, who whisked her off to a life in New York City. Every account of their marriage details its enduring and loving nature. The two Lees were clearly devoted to each other. Sadly, they were unable to have the biological children they so desperately desired. Rather than despairing, the Lees chose to adopt children whenever they could. Their home was bustling and full of life. They supported the children they brought into their family well into adulthood. One young man they had fostered as a child told the story of how once he had finished his education, Mr. Lees insisted that he needed a cultural education as well and paid for him to tour Europe.  

In 1873, shortly after the end of the Civil War, James Lees suddenly took ill and died, leaving Susanna a young widow with a house full of children. Nevertheless, here continues what seems to be the theme of Susanna’s life: rather than despairing, she pushed on and celebrated the life she had. She took on more causes and supported the education of more children wherever she could. Susanna spent the final 30 years of her life a widow, but she barreled through, taking in children, celebrating her family and their lives, and giving money for education. 

Susanna’s connection to the school that later became Lees-McRae College did not happen until much later in her life. A friend who knew about Susanna’s passion for education recommended that she look into the project Edgar Tufts was working on in North Carolina. Susanna Lees never came to Banner Elk and she never met Edgar Tufts. But after hearing about the work Edgar Tufts was doing providing education in the mountains of North Carolina, she sent $500 with the hopes of continuing his work. When she died in 1902 and left an additional monetary gift to the Institute, Reverend Tufts felt that her generous gifts should be honored and he renamed his school the Lees-McRae Institute in 1903.  

On the face of things, there is no reason for the lives of Susanna Lees and Elizabeth McRae to cross paths. They lived in different parts of country, one was wealthy and the other was not, one stayed put while the other travelled. However, Edgar Tufts saw the commonality of commitment to education in them. He praised Susanna for her gifts and Elizabeth for her service. Through his recognition of those qualities, these two very different women are paired long past their lifetimes in the name of a college in a place neither ever visited. 

By Jess BellemerMarch 01, 2022