The road to public service for Howard Lee, the first Black mayor of Chapel Hill and a former North Carolina state senator, began just outside a public bathroom when he was 15 years old.
During an Oct. 19 conversation with The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, Lee recalled being “roughed up” as a teenager by a group of white men after he used a whites-only bathroom. The incident changed his life, he said.
“I made a commitment to myself at that time, I would never leave the South,” Lee said. “I would stay. I would fight. I didn't care how much it cost or how long it took me, I would do it. I have never left the South.”
Lee, now 87, discussed over Zoom his experience in politics and public service during and after the civil rights movement, his advice for young people seeking to affect change and his thoughts on the current political environment.
The Zoom event was moderated by Moriah James, a third-year doctoral student in the department of anthropology, and Daniel Johnson, Roy H. Park fellow at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
Lee, who was born in 1934, grew up on a sharecropper's farm in Georgia. After attending schools in the state and being drafted and honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, Lee began his time in Chapel Hill in 1964 as a graduate student in UNC's School of Social Work. He was elected as the first Black mayor of Chapel Hill in 1969 and served three terms in office.
The talk covered an array of topics ranging from Lee’s work in racial equity in education to the Chapel Hill public transit system, which he spearheaded. As mayor, Lee also implemented the first police social work initiative, now the Police Crisis Unit in the Chapel Hill Police Department.
He went on to serve on the North Carolina State Board of Education and in the N.C. Senate — among other governmental organizations — where he advocated for education reform.
Lee said while he's pleased with some of the efforts since made to advance equity in the educational system, there's still much left to be achieved.
"I think that there's just so much more work to be done, and I'm hoping that young leaders like you will be the ones to recognize and be able to take the reins and move this forward even more," Lee said.
Lee's conversation with the Stone Center follows conflicts and protests surrounding systemic racism both on the national stage and at UNC — most recently at the University with the UNC Board of Trustees' initial failure to give tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“It reminded me, again, as things change, they sometimes remain the same,” he said of Nikole Hannah-Jones' tenure case.
In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel after the event, Johnson also reflected on this sentiment.
“What happened to Nikole Hannah-Jones or the problem Chapel Hill is facing now about accessibility discrimination, (Lee) saw when he was mayor and he tried to fix when he was mayor," Johnson said. "That, to me, is tragic. The fact that we’re still talking about those same issues today on UNC’s campus — to me, that's the institution that failed in my opinion."
During the Zoom event, Lee said that real change happens when there’s a balance between institutional work and external activism.
Johnson then asked Lee what message he hopes to pass to young people on burnout.
“... You decide how much you can contribute, how much you can accept, and you stick to that focus very clearly on that, and not allowing yourself to be eaten up by the very thing you're hoping to change,” Lee said.
Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center and vice provost for academic and community engagement, said in an email that he hopes those who listened into the webinar with Lee will have an additional perspective on local history.
“What we wanted to do was to reflect on a life that was consequential in what happened in Chapel Hill, North Carolina during a particular period,” Jordan said.
In an interview with the DTH, James said she hopes that cross-generational connections and discussions such as this one help show the community, young and old, that change is possible and still in progress.
“We're just inspired by the fact that somebody like Howard Lee is still around and still able to tell us a story,” she said. “Hopefully people are reinvigorated by that.”
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