Q&A with four Black History Month honorees with connections to Chapel Hill
Tresa Brown, Howard Lee, Deborah Stroman and Edith Wiggins were honored.
During the North Carolina women’s basketball game against Virginia Tech on Wednesday night, the team and the Carolina Black Caucus honored four prominent figures as part of a Black History Month celebration.
Among those honored were Howard Lee, who was the first Black mayor of Chapel Hill. His election in 1969 made him the first Black mayor of a predominantly white town in the South since Reconstruction.
In 1994, Edith Wiggins became the first Black female vice chancellor at UNC, and was also director of the Campus Y and a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council.
Tresa Brown was the first UNC women’s basketball player to win All-American and ACC Player of the Year honors. She led UNC to its first ever ACC championship in 1984. She brought along her father, Henry Brown, and her high school coach, Lawrence Dunn.
Deborah Stroman played college basketball at the University of Virginia before working as a graduate assistant for UNC women’s basketball in 1984 and 1985. She has gone onto a long career at UNC, including doing color commentary for women’s basketball games.
These are their stories of life, race and basketball in Chapel Hill through the decades.
On living in Chapel Hill in the 1960s:
“My wife and I tried to live in Chapel Hill, but no realtor would sell us a house outside of the traditional Black community. We ended up buying a house but we also ended up living under the threat of death for about a year. We were threatened with harm because we had moved into a white area … We had to have police protection for a while. That was surprising, so when I became mayor, my first action was to create an open housing ordinance.”
On his mayoral run in 1969:
“That event probably more than anything caused me to at least take a look at the possibilities. I didn’t think I could get elected to mayor of Chapel Hill in 1969. North Carolina was still a segregated state and of course the Klan’s activities in this area as well as other parts of the state was very high. I thought my goal was not necessarily to win, but to try to force other candidates to try to do some of the things that needed to be done in Chapel Hill. So I made all these promises. I promised I was going to do everything— then I was elected.”
On being elected:
“I was the first Black person to be mayor of a predominantly white city in the South since Reconstruction. That got a lot of national and international attention. I like to tell people that after my election I got news articles from foreign countries in languages I couldn’t read. I hope they were saying good things.”
On Dean Smith and Charlie Scott:
“I’ve always thought that athletics had a role to play in terms of at least making people feel good and see a different side of a person. My wife and I were very much involved with Coach Smith … We were very much involved with having to recruit not only Charles Scott, but many players from 1960 up until the present time. I think the fact that athletics allows people to come together and agree on something for the moment. Unfortunately, athletic engagement doesn’t have a long-term impact; it simply allows people to be forced to see individuals in a different way, but in a narrow way.”
Tresa Brown and her father, Henry Brown
Henry Brown on getting Tresa to first play basketball:
“In middle school, and she came home one day and she wanted to be a cheerleader. I sat her down quietly and said, ‘Honey, you’re gonna be too tall to be a cheerleader.’ It broke her little heart. She was a bit clumsy, she was tall, so it worked out.”
“Once she got interested in basketball, she took a basketball everywhere she went. On dates she kept a basketball. Every day there was a basketball by her side. That’s the way it turned out.”
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“I spent a weekend up here and I was sold after that weekend. I had a great time, it was mostly players. I had a lot of fun and enjoyed myself and I was like, ‘Wow, I could see myself here.’ I wanted to come some place where I could help build a program, help a school get on a map … and I’m glad I chose Carolina for that reason because I was one of the forerunners for the ladies today to do that.
Tresa on how the program has changed:
“When I came in here … we didn’t have fans filling the stands. Sometimes we played to the lights shining on the stands, and no bodies … So to come now and get the opportunity to see these ladies, to see the program and to see the funds and the monies that has now gone toward the women’s program is awesome. I’m proud when I came in here. I’m very glad that I was a part to undergird this program, to help bring it to where it is today.”
On racial progress in Chapel Hill:
“There has been progress and in some areas there has not been progress. There might be some areas where things have slipped, but it’s a journey. We have to keep on it. People of good will and intentions have to keep moving to keep the issues alive. Those of us who were here a long time ago can help inspire them to keep doing what needs to be done.”
On the role of athletics in race relations:
“I think athletics have always played a big role, because people will cheer no matter who makes the touchdown … It was very hard though, for those first athletes, because it was so easy for people who didn’t want to see Blacks integrate, to be disrespectful to those players. They played through all of those insults and actions of discrimination and just helped moved everybody forward. Now I see as many white people cheering for Black athletes as Blacks."
On coaching Tresa Brown:
“Tresa Brown, I actually had a chance to coach her. There isn’t much you can do with a Tresa Brown. You just tweak, because she’s such an incredible athlete. To this day, I say that I don’t know anybody who has a better turnaround jumper. A lot of big people, they still shoot (low), but Tre had the ability to bring the ball up over her head and shoot with proper form. She was a pleasure to coach and very, very easy.”
On progress for female athletes:
“I’ve met a number of alums who talk about their parents or even their situations where they didn’t get a chance to play basketball or any sport as a female … in fact, two of my teammates when I came in as a first year, they shared one scholarship. There is no doubt that (today’s players) stand on our shoulders.”