Legislator, lawyer. Lee was born on November 27, 1844, on the plantation of Samuel J. McGowan in Abbeville District. His mother was a free black woman. Lee asserted that his father was a Samuel J. Lee of Charleston, but no such person appears in any census records, and some historians have opined that McGowan was his father. At age sixteen, Lee accompanied McGowan in the Civil War, and he said that he was wounded at Second Manassas in 1862 and again near Hanover Junction in 1864. McGowan was a Confederate general and later a South Carolina Supreme Court justice. While there is no official record of Lee’s service in the Confederate army, he was photographed with McGowan’s regiment armed and in uniform.
After the war, Lee farmed in Abbeville and soon entered politics. He served on the Edgefield County commission in 1868. That same year he was elected to the General Assembly, where he represented Edgefield County from 1868 to 1871 and Aiken County from 1872 to 1874. In 1872 Lee became the first African American elected Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Two years later he left the legislature and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general. Lee left a trail of scandal in the wake of his political career. He had served as counsel to the legislative committee conducting the investigation that led to the state treasurer Francis Cardozo’s impeachment trial in 1874. In 1875 Lee was convicted of issuing fraudulent checks as an Aiken County commissioner. In 1877 he was indicted on numerous counts of public corruption, but in exchange for his testimony against Francis Cardozo, he was granted immunity from prosecution. Lee was again charged with public corruption in Aiken County in 1879, but the charges were dropped.
After relocating to Charleston, Lee began to practice law and went on to become one of the state’s most successful black lawyers. Lee was a member of the South Carolina Bar beginning in 1872, and his connections with McGowan and his cooperation with the white establishment in post-Reconstruction South Carolina may have contributed to his legal success. While Lee was a man of little education, he was known for his oratory and legal acumen. He had an unprecedented twenty-seven appearances before the state supreme court, winning nine. While not a political leader after Reconstruction, Lee was active in Republican Party politics and spoke frequently at party functions. He was appointed a general in the state “colored” militia in 1891 and served until his death in Charleston on April 1, 1895. Upon learning of his death, the U.S. Circuit Court adjourned. Six thousand people attended his funeral. He was buried, with military honors, in Friendly Union Cemetery, Charleston.
Oldfield, John. “The African American Bar in South Carolina, 1877–1915.” In At Freedom’s Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina, edited by James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke, Jr. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Vandervelde, Isabel. Biography of Samuel Jones Lee. Aiken, S.C.: Art Studio Press, 1997.