When trying to move to Chapel Hill in the 1960s, Howard Lee and his wife Lillian were prevented from buying a home in Colony Woods, a predominantly-white neighborhood.
While they finally did buy the home, they lived under threats of death.
"That was the one thing that probably pushed me to run for mayor," Lee said.
On May 6, 1969, Lee won Chapel Hill’s mayoral election by about 400 votes, becoming not only the Town’s first and only Black mayor — but also the first Black mayor in a white-majority southern town since the Reconstruction.
Though segregationist housing policies were key players in prompting Lee to run for mayor, his campaign was built upon a number of other local issues.
“I made a lot of promises, including starting a transit system, bringing in more public housing, starting a sidewalk program (and) expanding utilities into the Black section of town — which had been denied throughout the years,” Lee said.
Lee, a Georgia native, moved to Chapel Hill in 1964 to pursue a master’s of social work at UNC.
During his three terms as mayor, Lee end up helping create current planning and zoning policies, a permanent public housing program and pioneered Chapel Hill’s now-extensive transit system.
“I’m proud of the fact that Chapel Hill came together," Lee said. "It wasn’t easy.”