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Lee, George W. (George Washington) (1894-1976) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Lee, George W. (George Washington) (1894-1976)
Variant Name: Lt. George W. Lee

Historical Note:

More commonly known as "Lt. Lee," as he preferred to be known following his service with the United States Army in France during World War I, George Washington Lee was a prominent business leader, proponent of African American equality, and Republican politician in Memphis.

George W. Lee was born in near Indianola, Mississippi, in 1894, the son of sharecroppers. Lee's father died when he was three years old, and he moved with his mother to Memphis in 1910. Lee graduated from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. After matriculating from Alcorn, Lee briefly worked for the Santa Fe Railway in Chicago before graduating as a Second Lieutenant from the Officer's Training Camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Lt. Lee served in the 92nd Infantry Division in France, and the unit - one of a few African American units engaged overseas - received commendation for their bravery.

Returning to Memphis after the war, Lee was persuaded by local African American leaders to abandon his plan of becoming a career military officer and instead join in local struggles for African American progress. Lee believed in achieving equality through African American capitalism, and he began work in the insurance profession, first with the Mississippi Life Insurance Company, where by 1920 he was promoted to a vice president of the company. After this company sold its controlling interest elsewhere, Lee worked for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Lee was a senior vice president at a Memphis office of this firm at his death in 1976.

Lee's interest in politics specifically with the Republican Party dates to at least the 1920, when he attended his first GOP convention as an alternate. In a 1928 letter from President Herbert Hoover, Lee is addressed as Director of the Colored Veterans Bureau of the Republican National Committee. Lee was a delegate to every Republican National Convention from 1940 until 1964, when Republican forces in Tennessee conspired to elect an all-white delegation. Lee supported more progressive Republican candidates for national office, and he gave the seconding nomination speech for Robert A. Taft at the 1952 Republican National Convention. At the time of his death, Lt. Lee was slated to attend the 1976 Republican National Convention as a delegate pledged to support Gerald Ford.

Lee was long affiliated with the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, and he began serving as Grand Commissioner of Education on a national level in 1951. Lee also operated the Lincoln League, a Memphis Republican Party organization founded by his mentor, Robert R. Church Jr. He spearheaded various community drives, served on a commission that erected a Memphis statue and named a park in honor of W. C. Handy, and in 1956 saw a post office building in Memphis named the George W. Lee Station, the first living African American with that distinction.

Lee first found wide acclaim as an author for his book Beale Street: Where the Blues Began in 1934, when this work became the first book by an African American author to be advertized in the Book-of-the-Month-Club News. In 1937, he published a novel, River George, and he later published a collection of stories as Beale Street Sundown in 1942. He also published short works in Negro Digest, The World's Digest, and the Southern Literary Messenger, and routinely wrote newspaper articles and letters to the editor throughout his life.

Lee died on August 1, 1976, in an automobile accident.

Sources: George Washington Lee papers, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, LA

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