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United Way of Lancaster County


Local leaders recognize legacy of Nelson M. Polite Sr.

Deborah Polite speaks about her father, Nelson M. Polite Sr., as state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El looks on outside the Marion Street entrance to Lancaster City Hall on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Standing outside City Hall on Wednesday, the Rev. Louis Butcher, the now-retired founder and pastor of Bright Side Baptist Church, quoted a stanza from the Longfellow poem “A Psalm of Life”:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

“Nelson Polite has left his footprints,” Butcher said.

Butcher was among the local community leaders who joined descendants of Nelson M. Polite Sr. for a press conference to celebrate and publicize the recent renaming of City Council chambers in Polite’s honor and warmly recall the man himself.

In February, City Council voted to name its chambers in City Hall the “Nelson M. Polite Sr. City Council Chambers.” The venue is slated for renovation later this summer and fall; in conjunction with that project, a plaque honoring Polite will be placed at City Hall’s Marion Street entrance, along with updated signage reflecting the chambers’ new name. Further details of the renovations, including the cost, were not available.

Dignitaries speaking Wednesday included, top row: The Rev. Louis Butcher, the Rev. Roland Forbes, Carlos Graupera; bottom row: State Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, Mayor Danene Sorace, state Rep. Mike Sturla. (Photos: Tim Stuhldreher)

Polite was for decades a civil rights activist and city leader. He served on City Council for more than a dozen years and was on the city’s Planning Commission. He was a lifelong member of Bethel AME Church and served on many boards the Urban League, NAACP Lancaster Branch, the Lancaster Rec and United Way of Lancaster County, to name a few.

He was “the consummate gentleman and the consummate politician,” state Rep. Mike Sturla said, adding that he was honored to know Polite as both friend and mentor. He had a remarkable ability to change minds, Sturla said, engaging with people in a soft-spoken but indefatigable manner until they found their “no” had become a “yes.”

Polite played an important role in Lancaster’s revitalization, said Carlos Graupera, the former CEO of the Spanish American Civic Association, now leader of the Tec Centro Workforce Network.

“I deeply admired him,” Graupera said.

State Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, extolled Polite’s wife, Jean Wilson Polite, as an important community leader in her own right, calling her “an active agent in the history of Black Lancaster.”

The Polite family plans to underwrite the remodeling of council chambers and the exterior additions through the Nelson M. Polite and Jean Wilson Polite Foundation. The city and Polite family are planning to unveil the updates at a ceremony on Friday, Oct. 4.

The foundation has established a donor-advised fund at the Lancaster County Community Foundation, and Deborah Polite, Nelson Polite Sr.’s daughter, urged Lancastrians to contribute to it.

Community and government leaders and Polite family members pose for a photo. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

In a press release provided by Deborah Polite, the foundation says it is seeking donations to fund “an appropriate memorial” recognizing both Nelson Polite Sr. and his father, Abraham “A.L.” Polite, who arrived in Lancaster in 1903 and until his death in 1968 worked tirelessly for civil rights and community betterment.

He was a steward, trustee and junior choir director at Bethel AME Church; a founding member of Crispus Attucks Community Center, the last president of the Negro Civic League and a founding member of its successor, the Lancaster branch of the NAACP.

The foundation says its fundraising goal is $2 million. Besides a memorial, funds will support the digitization of thousands of photos Nelson Polite Sr. took during his life.

Between the photos Polite snapped and the ones of him, “you could basically paint a picture of what happened in Lancaster over the past 50 years,” Sturla said.

The Rev. Roland Forbes said Wednesday’s gathering honored not only Polite’s influence, but the man himself. Polite, he said, embodied Proverbs 13:22: “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children.”