George L. Lee was born in Jamestown, New York on July 27, 1906.
In the 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Lee was the youngest of two sons born to George and Grace. They lived in Jamestown at 839 North Main Street. His father owned and operated a barber shop. In 1914, Grace took her two sons to Spokane, Washington, and later to Wenatchee and Seattle, where Lee graduated, in 1925, from Garfield High School. As a senior he was interested in art but had little formal training after high school, just a few months at the Chicago Art Institute.
Lee aspired to be a cartoonist, and by 1933, he was producing sports drawings for Bang, a magazine about boxing, and the Chicago American Daily Newspaper —“until,” as the back cover blurb on one of his books puts is, “those publications found out that he was black there was no more work for him.”
George didn’t accept defeat. I don’t know what, exactly, he did for the next twelve years, but in 1945, he was doing a panel cartoon he called Interesting People and syndicating it himself to the black press throughout the country. In appearance, the cartoon resembled Robert Ripley’s Believe It Or Not: Lee drew a realistic portrait of a black man or woman who had achieved greatness in some field and added a paragraph of biography and sometimes a cartoony picture of the subject doing his/her thing.
George Lee’s cartoons entitled Interesting People: Black American History Makers…“is to show that with God’s help, good courage, and determination, one can achieve much. May its pages be a source of inspiration, knowledge, and pride for all.”
On the book’s back cover is this: “At a time when there was little or no information available about African American ‘history makers,’ George Lee kept their names alive.” Indeed, he may have given them life in the collective memory of many African Americans.
“Many of the feature’s subjects were born slaves; all of the cartoons depict lives that stand as models of the courage and determination that helped George Lee commemorate them in his delightful, accessible history lessons.”
Lee discontinued Interesting People in 1948 because,” he says, “of the newsprint shortage brought on by World War II” that limited the size of newspapers for a time, forcing them to condense or eliminate feature content”, but the series was revived in 1970 and continued doing it until he retired in 1986 at the age of eighty.
Note: McFarland Publishers has recently completed reprinting three of Lee’s books: Inspiring African Americans: Black History Makers in the United States, 1750-1984; Interesting Athletes: A Newspaper Artist’s Look at Blacks in Sports; and Worldwide Interesting People: 162 History Makers of African Descent.