Robert Lee Andrews, merchant, businessman, and civic leader, was born on February 4, 1865, to Robert and Ellen Andrews in Alabama. As a child, he lived with his mother, a seamstress, in Muscogee County, Georgia, for a time before moving to Caldwell County, Texas, to live with his father, a farmer. In 1884 Andrews married his first wife, Modestia Allen (1865–1944), the daughter of Houston businessman and politician Richard Allen. They had a son, Richard T. Andrews, in 1886 but divorced within a few years.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, Andrews became an important merchant and civic leader in Houston. In 1900 he opened Andrews Grocery Store and was later assisted in this endeavor by his son Richard. He was so successful as a grocer that Andrews was nicknamed the “sweet potato king” due to his cornering of the sweet potato market in Houston. By 1919 he was one of two African Americans to pay taxes on property assessed at over $30,000, which enabled him to purchase the Ewing Residence, where millionaire George Hermann once lived, and a 1920 Cadillac Eight, for which he paid $4,800 cash. He married his second wife, Annie Belle Fox, around 1902, and the marriage remained childless.
In addition to being a successful businessman, Andrews was active in the African-American Houston community. In 1921 he served as vice president of a chamber of commerce committee dedicated to raising funds for Negro Boys Agricultural Clubs and personally donated $300 of the $500 raised. In addition, Andrews was a trustee of Wiley College in Marshall. During the late 1920s, Andrews and his wife moved to California for a time, but the specific reasons for this are unknown. However, they returned to Houston in the early 1930s. By the time of Andrews’s death on December 1, 1933, he was the largest black taxpayer in the city of Houston, with a property value of more than $100,000. He was buried at College Memorial Park Cemetery in Houston.
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The Crisis, Vol. 18, edited by W.E.B. DuBois. Dallas Express, July 16, 1921. Dallas Morning News, December 2, 1933.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Patricia Prather and Jennifer Bridges,
“Andrews, Robert Lee,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 21, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
September 26, 2013
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: