Fifty years ago today, Howard Lee was elected the first African American mayor of the town of Chapel Hill. There hadn't been an African American mayor of a predominately white Southern city since Reconstruction.
“But what it did was to inspire mayors in other communities across the south and I almost became the Mayor of the South because I got called on so much to come in and out of communities," said Lee, during a recent conversation about his big anniversary.
Lee was first elected in 1969. A year earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Racial tensions were high. It was hard for the Lees to even buy a home in mostly white Chapel Hill. And when they did, a cross was burned in their yard. Lillian Lee, Howard Lee’s wife of 56 years, recalls when her husband was elected mayor.
“It was exciting and sometimes very stressful and to be honest with you, sometimes very scary too," said Lillian Lee. "We had terrible threats made against us and our children, we weathered the storm, thank the good Lord.”
During the May 1, 2019 Chapel Hill town council meeting, Mayor Pam Hemminger and council members honored Howard Lee by proclaiming it "Howard Lee Day." He and his wife were also presented with a "Key to the City." Hemminger said, "I hope you'll use it often."
Most Chapel Hillians embraced Lee and his progressive voice. He would go on to soundly win three terms as mayor.
“Howard always has very, a wonderful perspective to share," said Hemminger. "But mostly he talks about taking it all in stride and trying to really listen and trying to think forward.”
One of Howard Lee’s biggest accomplishments was building a Chapel Hill transit system.
“Took me several tries to get it done. Got it done, got it approved and every time I see the buses, I feel very proud," said Howard Lee.
Lee was also instrumental in increasing the number of affordable housing units during his tenure.
Howard Lee and his wife moved to Chapel Hill, so he could attend UNC for graduate school. He was encouraged to attend the university in a chance meeting with Frank Porter Graham, the first president of the University of North Carolina system. Howard Lee would later serve 10 years as a state senator in the legislature and chair the State Board of Education.
When Lee was first elected mayor, he received a Western Union telegram from Coretta Scott King, extending him best wishes in this “new South, a-coming.”