Howard Lee overcame poverty and the deep-rooted racism of the Jim Crow south to become one of North Carolina’s most respected political and education leaders.
Along the way, in Chapel Hill in 1969, he made history as the first African-American to be elected mayor of a predominantly white Southern city.
Lee came from humble beginnings. Born on a sharecropper’s farm near Lithonia, GA, in 1934, as a young child he lived with his grandparents, parents, and siblings in a single rented room of an in-town home. His mother, believed passionately in education for her children and Lee responded to her expectations of excellence.
Unfortunately, the local segregated school system, at which he excelled, left him ill-prepared for college science courses. But Fort Valley State, near Macon, GA, gave greater weight to his determination and admitted him. He graduated in only three years, in 1959, with a B.A. in Sociology.
Following service with the United States Army, Lee was working as a juvenile probation officer in Savannah, GA, when his life took a drastic turn. He and his wife, Lillian, were invited to a speech by Dr. Frank Porter Graham, a champion of civil rights and former president of the University of North Carolina. They were the only African-Americans in the audience.
When Graham and Lee met after the speech, it was the beginning of a mentoring relationship and friendship which lasted until Graham’s death in 1972. “to be able to have met a person like Dr. Graham and to have had the privilege to have him as a role model and a mentor influenced my thinking in many ways,” says Lee, “it taught me the value of having a non-judgmental approach to dealing with people of different levels of life.”
Lee enrolled at UNC, with Graham’s encouragement, and earned his master’s degree in social work in 1966. He took a job in a research program at Duke University regarding disadvantaged children.
Lee and his family began looking for a home in Chapel Hill, which they believed to be a liberal and forwarding-thinking city. They decided to defy societal norms and purchased a home in one of the “white” neighborhoods. Immediately after moving in, they received threatening phone calls and even had a cross burned on their front lawn. The violence echoed racism which Lee had experienced personally as a boy and became the catalyst for his political career.
Inspired to create change, Howard Lee petitioned the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen to pass a non-discriminatory housing ordinance. When the effort failed for the second time, Lee decided to change the system from within.
“Instead of taking the system head on, or challenging it directly, (I decided) the thing to do would be to run for public office,” Lee said.
In his three terms as mayor, Lee oversaw a transformation how the town served its residents, spearheading the creation of public housing, public transportation and recreation programs. And he led the town to exert its autonomy from the university.
Following an unsuccessful run for Lt. Governor in 1977, Lee was appointed Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development by Gov. Jim Hunt. He held the post from 1997-1981 and was instrumental in overseeing the first phase of the construction of the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro.
Lee was elected five times to the North Carolina Senate, serving from 1990-94 and 1996-2002. He concentrated much of his legislative efforts on public education issues.
“I grew into the position,” he said. “I started out focused on transportation but then very quickly shifted to where my heart was and that is to focus on trying to improve opportunities through education.”
In 2003, Lee was elected Chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education and, in 2005, was appointed to the N.C. Utilities Commission by Governor Mike Easley. He stepped down from both posts in 2009, when Gov. Beverly Perdue appointed him executive director of the N.C. Education Cabinet.
Retirement did not dim his desire to ensure that all children have the opportunity for a bright future.
“I’m really concerned that black kids are not getting the same level of attention that is needed in our school system,” he said.
Founded in 2011, the Howard N. Lee Institute partners with parents, schools and communities to ensure at-risk middle and high schools students have equitable access to high quality educational experiences and graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, career, and life.
In 2015 Lee received the North Carolina Award for Public Service.
— By Imani Jones