Life stories: Jurina Vincent-Lee was a leader in community, mind and spirit

CorrespondentJune 16, 2013 

Jurina Vincent-Lee

COURTESY OF TASHONDA VINCENT-LEE

  • Jurina Smith Vincent-Lee

    Born: Nov. 23, 1977 in Bermuda

    1994: graduates from Bermuda High School for Girls

    1995: becomes a Bermuda police officer

    1998: moves to the United States, begins school at St. Augustine’s College

    2002: graduates from St. Augustine’s College, moves to Durham

    2004: becomes fitness instructor, a position she maintains at least part-time until her death

    2006: begins three-year tenure on the SONG board of directors

    2010: is hired at NCCU as a property security and parking officer

    2011: marries TaShonda Vincent-Lee in Washington, D.C.

    2012: moves to Hillsborough

    Dies: March 30

The wedding was to take place beside the waterfall at Meridian Hill Park, commonly known as Malcolm X Park, in Washington, D.C., but rain changed the plans. Jurina Vincent-Lee and her betrothed, TaShonda, waited as long as they could, but in the end took their nuptials to their hotel’s conference room.

Their best friends had decorated it as a mini-chapel, complete with candles and a makeshift aisle, and the two brides wore black while their guests wore white. In the end, it did not matter where they were wed, just that they were wed, for at home in Hillsborough the law would not have allowed the union.

“I just remember being upset because I wanted us to have the picture-perfect wedding, and my wife assured me it was. She believed rain was a sign of good things to come. ‘It is water that sustains us and causes growth.’ Only she could turn my glass from half-empty to half-full,” TaShonda Vincent-Lee said.

Less than a year later, the couple wept the day the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage passed the state legislature. Jurina Vincent-Lee had been an advocate for the LGBT community since moving to the Triangle in 1998.

Jurina Vincent-Lee, an officer of the North Carolina Central University police force, died this spring while driving home from a friend’s house in Hillsborough. She crossed the center line and collided with an oncoming car, also killing Dixie Shively, a Durham mother of three. It remains unclear why Vincent-Lee crossed the center line, her family said. Her body was so badly burned that nothing could be gleaned from an autopsy.

At 35 years old, Vincent-Lee was just starting the process of enrolling in a doctoral program and ready to continue advocating for those in need.

Vincent-Lee was born and raised in Bermuda, where after high school she became a police officer. But Bermuda, known for its temperate climate and pristine beaches, was not a paradise for her.

“It’s pretty much like you shouldn’t be openly gay there,” TaShonda Vincent-Lee said. “She had some harassment when she was on the police force, initially.”

She moved stateside and attended St. Augustine’s College, now a university, where she received an athletic scholarship, ran track and played tennis. When she graduated, she pursued U.S. citizenship.

“She was dating and felt she could be free to create her own life, free from the phobias and drama of the island,” TaShonda Vincent-Lee said.

Jurina Vincent-Lee lived in Durham until last year. For three years, she served as a board member of Southerners on New Ground, a group whose mission is to be “a home for LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South.”

“Jurina was never apologetic about who she was. Jurina did what she said she was going to do,” said Caitlin Breedlove, co-director of the group.

Vincent-Lee was known for holding group events at her home, offering support to LGBT youth coming out to their families, and serving in particular the African-American and immigrant communities.

Her civic involvement was not confined to gay rights. Following Hurricane Katrina, Vincent-Lee made a pilgrimage to New Orleans to work with the Common Ground Collective. She gutted homes, supervised work crews and made sure there was a safe work environment for fellow volunteers amid the toxic debris.

Vincent-Lee did not boast, friends say. But she was known for her directness.

“She wouldn’t say things about people that she wouldn’t say to their face,” Breedlove said, and she was quick to tell others when they were gossiping or being negative. “That’s part of why we called her ‘Coach.’ ”

This attribute came in handy not only in fighting for causes close to her heart, but also as a personal trainer. She worked for many local fitness centers, and friends refused invitations to work out with her, for her workouts were notoriously grueling. Vincent-Lee strongly believed in keeping not just the mind and spirit in shape, but also the body.

When she died, she was going on her third year as a member of the police department at North Carolina Central University. Capt. Al White, her supervisor, was preparing to name her lead instructor during the next service training.

During her tenure at NCCU, she had gone from being a property security and parking officer to working as a human resources liaison between the police department and the criminal justice department – a position she created. White said she had a reputation for being pleasant even when writing parking tickets. She took initiative in modernizing their office practices, and improving their internship program.

Her widow said Jurina enjoyed being a police officer in Bermuda, but was often frustrated by having to arrest people who she knew had not been given the opportunities she had in life. Addiction, homelessness, lack of education – it pained her to lock people up knowing there were things that could help them in the long term.

“She felt that you could help people, no matter what, become self-sufficient,” TaShonda Vincent-Lee said.

Being able to marry TaShonda was one of the many things Jurina had worked towards making happen, friends say. Even though it was not legal in her home state, it had become legal during her lifetime in this country.

“At the end of the day . . . she died my wife,” TaShonda said, slowly treasuring each word. “My wife. She is my wife.”

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