When the U.S. Postal Service closed its branch office at 826 Mississippi Blvd. near E.H. Crump Boulevard in 2012, workers carted off an oil painting that hung there for several decades with little thought about the man portrayed in the painting.
An exhibit at the Memphis-Shelby County Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library looks at the life of Lt. George W. Lee, the early 20th century African-American political and business leader.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen got a call from postal service officials trying to figure out what to do with the painting, which, for a time, was in their storage archives.
Cohen knew instantly that the painting was of Lt. George W. Lee, the early 20th century African-American political and business leader for whom the unit was named. It was next to the Memphis firehouse that was home to the city’s first African-American firefighters.
Cohen got the painting to Lee’s daughter Gilda Lee, who is forming a nonprofit called the Back to Beale Foundation aimed at returning Lee’s story to a prominent place in the city’s history.
“We want to go back as far as we can into Beale Street history, starting with my father’s books and find out where the people he named in his books where their stories are … and work our way up to 2014,” she said after a weekend reception at the Memphis-Shelby County Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
The Memphis of her father’s time is a different place in myriad ways. Many of those at the gathering of about 100 had come the same day from the much larger crowd at the reopening of the renovated National Civil Rights Museum.
“He converted us from Democrats to Republicans,” said Samuel Turner, pastor of East Trigg Baptist Church, who met Lee in 1956.
“How things have changed,” Turner quickly added of the move by most of the city’s African-American voting base to the Democratic Party starting in the 1960s when the Republican Party’s status as the party of Lincoln turned to the party of Goldwater.
Turner recalled voting for Republican nominee Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1956 following the lead of Lee, who was known as “Mr. Republican.”
“Of course, I haven’t voted that way since,” he said.
In the audience, Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, applauded as Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, sitting next to Cohen, did not.
“It was a different political era,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. recalled living in rural West Tennessee and reading about Lee’s prominent role in the Memphis political scene.
“I felt like Columbus about Memphis and politics here,” he said of his anticipation about moving to Memphis one day. “Is there such a place?”
Lee’s papers are already part of the Memphis-Shelby County Room as are out of print copies of his three books starting with “Beale Street: Where the Blues Began” in 1934.
“My father not only played on the stage here in Memphis. He went on to play a national part,” Gilda Lee said of her father and his times.
Lee’s is a public life of achievements that can seem from a distant political age where letters and proclamations and similar honors were much more important.
There was a seconding speech at the 1952 GOP convention of Sen. Robert Taft. He was the first black author to have a book in the Book of the Month Club.
Formal letters from President Calvin Coolidge to President Gerald Ford are among the documents that Lee’s daughter takes note of.
By the time Lee died in 1976, Memphis was represented by a black congressman who was a Democrat and Criminal Court Judge Otis Higgs had made the first of his historic bids to become the city’s first black mayor.
While his first book is best remembered for documenting Beale Street’s colorful life, those at the weekend reception also read from other sections of the book that detail the bid by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to take over one of the few industries in which black business owners had real power that whites couldn’t touch – life insurance.
Lee sided and worked with Crump after Crump turned on Lee’s one-time ally, Robert R. Church Jr. including seizing Church’s properties across the city for back taxes and the city’s torching of the Church home near Beale as practice for the Memphis Fire Department.
Much of the talk about Lee didn’t stray into the mid- to late-1960s when his leadership of the Republican Party was successfully challenged by such “New Guard” Republicans as Lewis Donelson and Harry Wellford. Wellford, now a retired federal judge, was at the library reception and introduced himself to Gilda Lee.
“I’ve heard of you,” Lee said warmly as she recognized the name and shook hands.
Among the Republicans who came to prominence as the New Guard rebuilt the party was Alexander, who met Lee in 1966 as Howard Baker was running for the U.S. Senate.
“He was always breaking barriers,” Alexander said of Lee. “We’ve seen a lot of change.”