The George W. Lee Collection was given to the library by his daughter Gilda Lee Robinson in 1985. The large collection includes extensive and wide-ranging correspondence, copies of many of Lee's speeches, hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings, and many awards and certificates presented to Lee over the years. An important part of this collection is the array of more than 400 photographs and the five large scrapbooks which contain photographs, clippings and letters. In addition, there is one box of magazines and one box of personal Christmas cards.
Lee was born near Indianola, Mississippi in 1894 to Reverend George Lee and Hattie Stringfellow Lee. He first came to Memphis in 1912 where he worked each summer as a bellhop at the Gayoso Hotel to finance his education at Alcorn A&M College.
With the onset of World War I, Lee was accepted for admission to a segregated officer training school. Through hard work and determination to succeed, Lee received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. Decorated for bravery in battle, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. This was a proud achievement for Lee, and the title "Lt. Lee" remained with him for the rest of his life.
Following the war, Lee established himself in the growing African American insurance business, first as a salesman for Mississippi Life Insurance Company, and then later with Atlanta Life Insurance Company, where he became a vice president in 1964 and later served as director of public relations.
Lt. Lee went on to become one of the most successful African American business and political leaders in the South. He utilized his talents as an articulate speaker and a polished writer in his long local and national political career.
Politically, Lee's first important work was in the Lincoln League, an African American Republican organization set up in 1916 by Robert R. Church. By 1919, this group was chartered as the Lincoln League of American, and it was largely through political activism in the League that Lee attained national recognition. Although the Republican Party in Memphis won few elections until the Eisenhower years, Lee, as the local GOP leader, exerted considerable influence through his alignment with East Tennessee Republicans.
The fraternal order of Elks, where Lee had achieved prominence, provided a national platform for his oratorical and organizational abilities. In later years, Lee worked through the Elks organization to call attention to civil rights struggles. As Elks Grand Commissioner of Education, he emphasized black pride through education and the expansion of African American businesses.
Lee acquired the nickname "Boswell of Beale Street" through his gift of describing African American life and music in his books and stories. Beale Street: Where Blues Began received national acclaim and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. River George and Beale Street Sundown also portray African American life in the South. Lee's admiration for W. C. Handy's music and his recognition of its significance in American culture led him to support the creation of a park and statue in honor of the great blues writer.
Lee was the recipient of numerous honors and awards during his lifetime. Among them was the naming of the George W. Lee postal station at 826 Mississippi, the first to be named for an African American. In 1973, his portrait was placed in the State Capitol at Nashville and that year he also received the R. Q. Venson Memorial Award presented by American Legion Post No. 27 in honor of his service to his country and community. Lee remained an active member of the Memphis community until his death on August 1, 1976.
View the finding aid for the manuscript collection.
View the digital collection.