George Washington Lee was a successful African American businessman and politician who wrote his first book to promote racial pride during the Great Depression by praising black-owned businesses on Beale Street in Memphis. As a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Lee also used his writings to provide a realistic portrayal of the corruption of the tenant farming system. In his final works he wrote short political essays.
Lee was born on 4 January 1894 in Indianola, the son of Rev. George Lee and Hattie Lee. George’s parents separated soon after his birth, and the family moved into a sharecropper’s shack following his father’s death. Lee’s mother insisted on her sons’ education, but young George also worked as a cotton planter and picker, grocery clerk, house worker, and dray driver. He enrolled at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in Lorman and from 1912 to 1917 worked each summer as a bellhop at the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis to earn money to help his family and pay his tuition. At Alcorn, Lee was inspired by reading abolitionist Wendell Phillips’s message of racial understanding and black pride.
In 1917 the War Department acquiesced to demands put forth by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), establishing a black officer’s training camp in Des Moines, Iowa. Lee was admitted to the program, rose to the rank of lieutenant, and fought for two years in France during World War I before his honorable discharge in 1919.
Lee then moved to Memphis, where he undertook a variety of activities, including working a number of jobs, leading fraternal and political organizations, and writing. Lee served as vice president of the Mississippi Life Insurance Company from 1922 to 1924 and later held various executive positions with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and the Universal Life Insurance Company. His active career as a civic and political organizer endowed him with a keen knowledge of contemporary social issues and later served as subject matter for Lee’s writings. He served on the Tennessee executive committee of the American Legion and delivered a seconding speech for Robert Taft at the 1952 Republican National Convention. Lee frequently spoke out against poverty and discrimination, praised racial pride, and stressed the need for blacks to organize and support their own businesses.
When the Great Depression halted Beale Street’s economic prosperity, Lee wrote a history of the area’s leading black-owned businesses to help renew his political theme of black pride. Beale Street: Where the Blues Began (1934) was historical fiction, featuring a foreword by blues composer and musician W. C. Handy. The book highlights blacks who achieved great financial success despite segregation and economic deprivation. Lee credited Robert R. Church Sr., who gained his freedom following the Civil War and went on to become worth millions of dollars, with helping to establish Beale Street as a black economic center. Through the frame of Church’s narrative, Lee praised the success of local bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, ministers, doctors, business professionals, and insurance executives, all of whom Lee knew.
Lee balanced Beale Street’s financial success with other civic accomplishments by including citizens who achieved artistic success and exemplified a high moral standing. He highlighted Julia A. Brooks, founder of a local integrated music school, and praised blacks who stayed to help save the city after the majority of whites fled during an 1878 yellow fever epidemic. At the risk of damaging his message of black pride, Lee tempered Beale Street with stories of corrupt and uneducated blacks. Through the inclusion of scenes with pimps, prostitutes, and poor men and women scavenging garbage cans for food, Lee provided an honest portrayal of depression-era life.
The book garnered wide public and critical praise, prompting his rise within the Republican Party but a reduced role with the NAACP and the Urban League. He wrote his second book only after Walter White, the NAACP executive secretary, claimed that Beale Street’s success resulted from the area’s prominence rather than Lee’s writing skills.
Lee’s literary response came in the form of a 1937 novel, River George. Introduced in the third chapter of Beale Street, Aaron George, the novel’s hero, mirrors Lee’s life in several ways. George attends Alcorn A & M before returning to sharecropping to support his mother. While in college he gains a sense of social responsibility, and he later discovers that he has been cheated by the local plantation bookkeeper. At this point, George begins to organize his fellow tenant farmers to question the sharecropping system. After the local white postmaster is killed in a struggle with George, he joins the army, becomes a lieutenant, and serves in France before returning home to die at the hands of a lynch mob. Critics praised the book’s autobiographical elements as well as its depiction of a black hero exposing the corruption of the tenant farmer system.
By the early 1940s Lee’s involvement with the Republican Party increased and his writing emphasized folklore rather than racial pride as his political stance shifted from protest to forms of accommodation. Beale Street Sundown, his final book, reflected these changes. The short stories collected there, which originally appeared in the Negro Digest, the World’s Digest, and the Southern Literary Messenger, are more aesthetic vignettes than social tracts.
Lee’s political essays appeared in black periodicals and newspapers throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He maintained his role within the Republican Party by actively supporting the Eisenhower administration and working in the Goldwater presidential campaign. He became grand commissioner of the Elks in the 1960s and helped raise money for the United Negro College Fund. Lee died on 1 August 1976.
- Trudier Harris, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940 (1987)
- David M. Tucker, Lieutenant Lee of Beale Street (1971)