John Robert Edward Lee, civic leader, teacher and educational-association founder, was born a slave on January 26, 1864, in Seguin, Texas, to John and Mary (Mayes) Lee. He attended Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, after receiving his elementary and secondary education in Seguin. His outstanding scholarship at Bishop led to his appointment as a student assistant to the faculty. After receiving his A.B. and graduating with honors in 1889, Lee became the principal in a two-teacher school in Palestine. In 1891 he left Palestine to assume the role of dean of men and professor of Latin, mathematics, and history at Bishop College. During that time he also served as a consultant for the black schools and churches of Marshall. Lee's work at Bishop brought him to the attention of Booker T. Washington, and in 1901 he was invited to become the head of the Tuskegee Institute mathematics division. Lee accepted but left Tuskegee two years later to assume the role of professor of mathematics at Benedict College in South Carolina.
In 1903 Bishop College awarded Lee an honorary master of arts degree, and in 1905 he returned to Tuskegee as director of the academic department. Ten years later he left to become the principal of Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. There he developed an industrial department that served as a model for other Missouri schools. In 1918 Wilberforce University awarded Lee an LL.D. in recognition of his notable humanitarian services, and some years afterwards Howard University honored him with another LL.D for his "outstanding contributions to Negro education." One of those contributions was the founding in 1904 of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, of which he was president for the first five years.
In 1921 Lee left education to become the extension secretary for the national Urban League. In 1924 he became president of Florida A&M College in Tallahassee, Florida, where he remained for the next twenty years. During his tenure Lee expanded the school curriculum, introduced extension programs, and obtained accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. His son, J. R. E. Lee, Jr., helped his father obtain funds for Florida A&M's continued growth. During his tenure at Florida A&M Lee also served as an ex officio consultant to the Educational Policies Commission, a member of the National Educational Association, a member of the Florida State Advisory Committee for the National Youth Administration, and chairman of the State Negro Defense Saving Committee.
Lee married Ardella Wilson in 1895, and they had seven children. She died in 1932. Lee died on April 6, 1944. He was buried at his request at Marshall, Texas.
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Effie Kaye Adams, Tall Black Texans: Men of Courage (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt, 1972). Michael R. Heintze, Private Black Colleges in Texas, 1865–1954 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985). Leedell W. Neyland, "The Educational Leadership of J. R. E. Lee," Negro History Bulletin 25 (January 1962).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Lee, John Robert Edward,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 27, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
March 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: