The Town of Chapel Hill renamed the Chapel Hill Transit Facility after former Chapel Hill Mayor and state Sen. Howard Lee and his wife Lillian Lee at a ceremony on Monday.
Howard Lee, the first Black mayor of a predominantly white town in the South since Reconstruction, is credited with establishing the Chapel Hill Transit system and purchasing the first buses for the town during his mayorship from 1969 to 1975.
In 1974, Howard Lee purchased five buses from Atlanta, Georgia. He thus formally started the Town's public transportation system. Since then, the system has continued to grow and now has the second-most transit ridership in North Carolina after Charlotte, according to Chapel Hill Transit Director Brian Litchfield.
“It didn’t disappear, it didn’t dry up like a raisin in the sun,” Howard Lee said at the event. “Because of the strong leadership and the commitment, and because of the strong mayors and drivers who stuck with the system, it frankly has bloomed and become a great reality.”
The son of a Georgia sharecropper, Howard Lee decided to run for office after racist threats due to the fact that his family lived in a white neighborhood.
Lillian Lee became one of the first teachers at the UNC Hospital School when it was founded in 1965. She also served many years as an administrator in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and is now retired.
Other speakers at the event included Litchfield, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC Student Body President Teddy Vann.
“Our council has had a policy of not naming facilities until people are long gone,” Hemminger said in a speech. “This was too important. We wanted to be able to honor and let the people who made a difference in our community know how honored we are.”
Chapel Hill Transit employees also spoke at the event.
Retired bus driver Chris Carlson, one of Chapel Hill Transit's first bus drivers, recounted stories about the difficulty of driving the unreliable vintage buses from Atlanta.
“One time, we had to use a mail truck in order to move passengers because all of the buses were broken down,” she said at the event.
Despite the challenges, drivers like Carlson persevered. She described experiences as "an adventure everyone was involved in" and emphasized the importance of passengers, mechanics and drivers working together to make the system work.
The event was attended by state and local leaders, including N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham, Orange, members of the Carrboro and Chapel Hill Town councils and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue.
Litchfield also read letters of appreciation from U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who were unable to attend the event.
After the speakers, Lillian and Howard Lee each addressed the crowd, expressing their gratitude to the Town and everyone who helped make the transit system a reality.
“In my 86 years, I’ve had a number of good things happen to me,” Lillian Lee said. “But nothing makes me happier than what is happening today.”
Howard Lee thanked Litchfield for continuing to build on the work that he began.
Chapel Hill Transit has been fare-free since 2002 and continues to grow and adapt to the changing times. For example, 11 new electric buses were introduced during a ceremony in April. These zero-emission vehicles will help reduce the town’s carbon footprint.
After the event, Litchfield spoke about the importance of Carrboro’s first Black mayor, Robert Drakeford, who served from 1977 to 1983 and built on Lee’s work in Chapel Hill by connecting the Town of Carrboro to Chapel Hill’s Transit system.
Litchfield credited the expansion of the transit system to both men.
“We wouldn't have been able to do the fare-free system,” Litchfield said. “We would not have the ridership. We wouldn't be talking about doing bus rapid transit and electric buses and all those things if not for the initial vision and leadership of Mayor Lee, but also, without the vision and leadership of Mayor Drakeford from Carrboro saying 'we all need to be a part of this as well,' too."
At a recent Carrboro Town Council meeting, Town council member Barbara Foushee asked the town council to name the new library at 203 S. Greensboro St. in Drakeford’s honor.
Rev. Marcus McFaul of Binley Baptist Church, where the Lees attend church, highlighted Lillian’s “feistiness and baptized gumption” and Howard’s “humility and graciousness" before closing the ceremony in prayer.
“We celebrate and honor these two who have made and continue to make a difference, for they are indeed vehicles of change,” McFaul said in a prayer closing the ceremony.
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