George Washington Lee

Known on the streets of early twentieth-century Memphis as “Lieutenant Lee,” both for his army service as a lieutenant in World War I and as the lieutenant for the powerful African American capitalist and Republican Party leader Robert Church Sr., George W. Lee was born in Indianola, Mississippi, on January 4, 1894. He received his bachelor's degree from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in France during World War I.

In Memphis during the 1920s and 1930s Lee was a leading Republican and African American businessman. He promoted a self-help, black pride philosophy and encouraged new African American businesses through his involvement in local banks and insurance companies. He also became one of the earliest historians of the Bluff City's African American culture. His book Beale Street: Where the Blues Began (1934) emphasized themes of creativity, accomplishment, and black pride in an age where rigorous application of Jim Crow still ruled the streets of Memphis. Lee highlighted various leaders of the African American community, from his friend and Republican ally Robert R. Church Sr. to jazz musician William C. Handy. He later briefly hosted a radio show of African American music from his own offices on Beale Street.

In 1937 Lee wrote the novel River George, a portrait of a young African American World War I military officer who finds little but hard times upon return to his native land and is finally lynched. Lee's last book was Beale Street Sundown (1942), a collection of stories about the folklife of the African American community of Memphis.

Lee was among the Memphis leaders in the local chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League. While in his lifetime Lee was best known as Church's trusted lieutenant and a successful insurance man, today his writings are also considered lasting contributions. Lieutenant George W. Lee Avenue, the location of the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, is named in his honor. Lee died on August 1, 1976.

Suggested Reading

David M. Tucker, Lieutenant Lee of Beale Street (1971)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title George Washington Lee
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018