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'It wasn’t easy': 50 years later, legacy of Chapel Hill's first and only Black mayor prevails

Howard Lee, the first Black mayor of Chapel Hill, is pictured in the mayor's office in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

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.” 

Lee was inspired to enhance transportation in Chapel Hill because UNC students lacked accessibility to residential areas of the town. 

Now, Chapel Hill Transit provides fare-free transportation in both Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including University areas. 

“If not for him and his efforts, we likely would not have Chapel Hill Transit as we know it today,” Brian Litchfield, the director of Chapel Hill Transit, said.

The development of Chapel Hill’s transit system took considerable amounts of communication between the University, the Town government and the state of North Carolina, Lee said.

Now, the Chapel Hill Transit Center bears the names of Howard and Lillian Lee.

From the Rock Wall, an oral history project organized by the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, compiles audio recordings of influential figures in the Black community of Chapel Hill. 

Lee, along with members of the Chapel Hill Nine and dozens of other Black Chapel Hill residents, is featured on the site.

“If people want to know more about that time period and want to know more about Black history, the best place to go is to hear that history from the people who lived it,” Kathryn Wall, the co-director of public history for the Jackson Center, said.

Lee also served as a state senator, the chair of the state Board of Education and the secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development.

After his retirement, Lee lectured and spoke at universities and conferences across the country about his career and spent several years running the Howard N. Lee Institute for Equity and Opportunity in Education. The organization, which has since ceased operations due to Lee’s retirement and the COVID-19 pandemic, aimed to close the racial achievement gap in local schools and empower young Black men. 

Lee, who will turn 89 years old in July, still lives in Chapel Hill with his wife in the same Town that inspired his barrier-breaking political career.

“I'm lucky and delighted and very proud that I made it this far," Lee said. "But at any rate, I've had a full life, and of course, I'm just delighted that my wife and I decided to remain in Chapel Hill.”

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@wslivingston_ | @DTHCityState |

Walker Livingston

Walker Livingston is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.  

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