Luke Lea in the Great Depression

by Doris Boyce.

As Luke Lea and his son Luke Jr. entered the grim walls of the North Carolina State Prison at Raleigh in May 1934, they wondered how long it would be before they would pass through those gates again. Lea’s only request was granted: he and his son would share the same cell.

·         Luke Lea (Library of Congress photo, LC-DIG-hec-03657, Harris & Ewing photograph collection)

At one time Luke Lea had developed policies for the state of Tennessee and had influenced decisions on the national level. Now he could no longer direct even his own affairs or those of his son, but his absolute belief in their innocence made him determined to win their freedom.

After the stock market crash in 1929, Lea had learned that his political enemies would do almost anything to get rid of him. The foundation of his political power was the newspapers he published: Lea Sr. was president of the Tennessean Publishing Company, and his son was business manager.

Unemployed men line up outside a depression-era soup kitchen, 1931

Luke Lea was convinced that a certain Nashville banker, in a calculated political maneuver, had set out to destroy him while also working to impeach Governor Henry Horton. With Lea’s newspapers out of the way, the banker would be able to suppress unfavorable financial news; with a governor of his choice in office, he would be able to funnel badly needed state deposits into his bank.

As charges of banking violations were brought against Lea in both Davidson County and North Carolina, his Memphis and Knoxville newspapers were put into receivership. Not having been present in North Carolina at the time of his alleged offenses, Lea could not be extradited there. However, sure of his innocence, he voluntarily traveled to Asheville to clear his name. A special term of the Buncombe County Court had been appointed to try cases growing out of bank failures. It was commonly understood by attorneys across the state that the judge appointed to hear these cases was expected to obtain convictions.

Luke Lea’s sentence was for six to ten years, His son was fined $25,000 and was to be jailed until the fine was paid, but both men understood that paying the fine would have been an admission of guilt.

Inmate showers in Old Central State Prison, Raleigh, NC, in cell block, no date (c.1950-1960s); photo courtesy Keith Acree, NC Department of Corrections. State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

They appealed the verdict and entered into a lengthy but unsuccessful fight for a retrial.The Nashville Tennessean was put into receivership in 1933. The Davidson County case against the Leas was dropped when they entered prison. At last, while they were still incarcerated, an independent audit proved them to be innocent of the charges for which they had been convicted.

Luke Lea Jr. was paroled in July 1934, but it wasn’t until after the mass hysteria over bank failures had died down and a new North Carolina governor had been elected that Luke Lea was paroled in April 1936 and finally pardoned in 1937. He knew he faced an uphill fight to reestablish his status and reputation, and he prayed that “the will to win” would sustain him in whatever lay ahead. Unfortunately, however, he died while legislation to allow him to regain control of the Tennessean was still incomplete. (1998)