This Thursday, Howard Lee will be one of six presented with the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest honor, for his public service efforts in the community. The story below originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Chapel Hill Magazine.
Just about everybody knows that Howard Lee became the first African-American to be elected mayor of a predominantly white Southern city when he claimed a surprise victory in Chapel Hill in 1969. It was a watershed moment in the town’s – and the country’s – history.
Fewer people know that he was elected twice more, in landslide fashion and with little fanfare – a fact that may be even more significant
His run was no stunt, his win no fluke, his tenure no mere symbol. There was no escaping racial controversies in the Civil Rights era, and Mayor Lee certainly had to handle his share, including a major workers’ strike on campus.
But he also did the work – the kind that doesn’t grab headlines or become the stuff of TV movies – to make Chapel Hill better for everyone, black and white. Like our transit service? Thank Howard Lee. A fan of affordable housing? Thank Howard Lee. Have you visited a public park or pool in Chapel Hill, oh, ever? You can thank him for that, too. “He helped lead the town of Chapel Hill into its modern place in our region and in our state,” current Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says.
“We’re lucky he chose Chapel Hill because we’ve certainly been blessed by his presence and his leadership, and he continues to have an impact 40 years after he left the mayor’s office. He was the right person at the right time. He was able to help craft solutions that addressed problems people were facing at a particular moment in time but in such a way that would have lasting impact. Forty years later, those are still part of our community’s brand and distinguish us as a forward-looking community. Without that, I don’t know what we’d be. Another Gainesville? God help us.”
Who knew our salvation would come from a sharecropper farm in segregated Georgia?
‘The Happiest Days’
Howard Nathaniel Lee was born July 28, 1934, on his grandparents’ sharecropper farm near Lithonia, Ga., about 18 miles south of Atlanta. A white man named Johnny Sills owned the farm and would bring his children by to play with Howard and his brother, Minnard. Both boys rode the Sills’ family horse and played with their dogs named – yes – Mutt and Jeff. “The happiest days of my life were on that farm because we had a family connection that was very supportive, and there was a very caring relationship between the Sills and my family,” Howard says. “That’s the one thing about the South that I’ve carried with me. Adam Clayton Powell said the North accepts people as races but rejects them as individuals, while, in the South, people are rejected by race but accepted as individuals. I found that to be very true.”
Which is not to say Howard and his family were immune from racial persecution, in Lithonia or Chapel Hill. But this attitude would help him navigate the white-controlled world and change it from within.
When Howard was 2, his parents grew restless. They moved into one room of a house owned by an older lady in town. His father gor a job at a quarry, his mother at an elementary school. “My grandmother made it very clear I was not [leaving the farm],” Howard recalls. “I was her favorite. She told my parents they could take my brother.”
This went on for six years, until Howard’s grandparents had a falling out with the Sillses and left the farm to move into the house in Lithonia. It meant Howard, his now three siblings, his parents and his grandparents all slept in one room. “It just was what it was,” Howard says. “That was an experience that taught me how people live in poverty. Like oppressiveness and segregation, it just felt like that was the way it was supposed to be.”
‘This Line Was Real‘
His mother wanted all her children – there’d be seven altogether – to receive an education. Her eldest was always bright, perhaps a bit too bright for his own good. When he enrolled in her first-grade class at age 5, “frankly, I was a little cocky. I was with kids who couldn’t read, while I could just read through things so easily. I did just enough to make sure I came off as the smartest. My mother thought that was unacceptable. When it came time to graduate to second grade, she said, ‘You’re not going.’ Because I didn’t put forth any great effort, she held me back.” She told him later, “I wanted to break you down.”
“The message got through,” Howard says. “I never sloughed off again.”
He grew into a bookish, serious youngster and writes in his memoir, The Courage to Lead, that he spent a lot of time alone. At age 10, he met Lukee, a white boy who shared his love for comic books. They met at least twice a week to swap comics and discuss them. That was until one day, when Howard noticed Lukee was in a bad mood. He got Lukee to admit his father had said they couldn’t play together anymore because “self-respecting whites did not associate with ‘niggers.’” Further, Lukee’s father had told him he should start thinking about joining the Ku Klux Klan. They never really crossed paths again. The incident made Howard angry, then sad. “I really felt sorry for Lukee because he was more a victim in his world than I would ever be in my world,” Howard wrote. “He could not make his own choices and had to abide by the choices his father made for him.”
Howard would have other racially charged run-ins during his formative years. Like the time he, after using the typically filthy colored restroom at a bus station, decided to check out the whites-only men’s room, and then the women’s room. A large white man came in and angrily wanted to know what he was up to. He grabbed Howard by the collar and threw him out the door. Howard took off running as other men began to give chase in a car. Howard narrowly escaped through the woods. “My parents and grandparents had tried to warn me about crossing the invisible line, but I had not listened,” Howard wrote in his memoir. “Now I understood that this line was real. I realized what I had done was purely and simply stupid. My grandfather’s words came into my mind: ‘Be proud and smart, but don’t be stupid.’”
‘A Very Strong Life’
After graduating high school ranked second in his class of seven, Howard enrolled in Clark College, the first in his family to pursue higher education. But he flunked out after a couple of years of struggle. He found his schooling in segregated Lithonia left him ill-prepared for college-level sciences.
Discouraged and desperate, he showed up one morning on the campus of Fort Valley State near Macon. The registrar took him to meet the president, who was impressed with his spunk if not his grades. He allowed Howard to enroll on a probationary basis. Anything below a C, and he was out.
Howard buckled down and graduated three years later in 1959. He then spent two years in the Army, including a stint in Korea, before being honorably discharged and finding a job as a juvenile probation officer in Savannah.
He made two fateful encounters there.
First, he met a young elementary school teacher named Lillian, a divorced mother of two, at a bowling alley. Howard says he was enjoying his bachelorhood at the time and wasn’t looking to settle down. But he soon found himself smitten, not only with Lillian but with her two children, Angela and Ricky. “There was something special not only about Lillian, but the children as well,” Howard says. “They were really hungry for a male in the house. The man she was married to accepted no responsibility for the kids.”
Add to that the fact that an injury sustained in the Army had put his ability to father children into question, and the match seemed perfect. They were married in 1962. “Lillian has been an exceptionally good partner,” Howard says. “And we’ve been able to build what I think is a very strong life.”
The second fateful encounter the next year changed both of their lives forever.
‘A Done Deal’
Dr. Frank Porter Graham, the respected former UNC president, was in town for a speech. The Lees were invited to the event by the wife of a powerful shipping magnate and early Civil Rights advocate, Capt. Frank Spencer. They were the only two black faces in the crowd. “We felt like two flies in buttermilk,” Howard would often say. One elderly lady took issue, banging on the floor with her cane and shouting, “I will not sit in the same room with any niggers! Get them out of here!” Capt. Spencer himself went to her and said, “You either shut up and sit down or get out.”
After the speech, the Lees got to meet Graham, who inquired about Howard’s future plans. He said he’d like to attend graduate school in social work, if he could afford it. Graham encouraged Howard to attend “a real great university” – a not-so- subtle jab at the University of Georgia – and told Howard he would help him pay for school.
Stunned and unsure if he was serious, Howard decided to apply. He got called up for interviews, but didn’t think he’d done very well. “What I didn’t know was that if Frank Porter Graham signed an approval on something, it was a done deal,” Howard says.
He left the family in Savannah and enrolled in 1964, living in Connor dorm, where he was surprised to have two white roommates.
All the way, Graham was a mentor, helping Howard get into family housing the next year so Lillian and the kids could join him. “He and I became very close friends,” Howard says. “I’ve always been very pleased that he lived to see me elected mayor of Chapel Hill.”
‘Y’all Are Troublemakers‘
Howard had no designs on politics when he received his graduate degree in social work and got a job at Duke in an educational research program aimed at disadvantaged children. But the seed was planted not long after, when he and Lillian tried to buy a house in 1966. They could afford houses in white neighborhoods, but each time they called their agent to make an offer, the house would just happen to have been recently sold. Some friends in the Colony Woods neighborhood told them about a house for sale at 504 Tinkerbell Rd. They put in an offer. The agent called his partner in Alabama, who called the Lees and offered several times to pay them so they wouldn’t buy the house. Howard refused each time and finally the Realtor, claiming he would be ruined if people learned he’d sold a house in a white neighborhood to a black family, had to relent.
Two days after they moved in, the threatening calls started. Howard was out of town, so Lillian fielded them.
“If your kids go to school tomorrow, you will not see them tomorrow night.”
“Y’all are troublemakers, so prepare a funeral because your husband won’t be coming home alive.”
The police posted a guard outside. The calls continued. It turned out they were mostly coming from the secretary at the Realtor office.
Then came the burning cross. It turned out to be the act of neighborhood kids who had heard their parents say it’s what would happen “in the old days” if a black family moved in.
Things quieted down after that, and the Lees lived their lives, though the incidents had inspired Howard to petition the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen to pass an open-housing ordinance, prohibiting racial housing discrimination. It was to no avail.
On April 4, 1968, the Lees were at Sears and Roebuck buying a dryer when they saw the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. Two weeks later, Howard was back in council chambers, again asking for an open-housing ordinance. Again, the board refused.
Howard knew then that leadership change was the only way to get the ordinance through. He first suggested his friend Buie Sewell, the liberal minister of a Presbyterian church, make a run. At first, he was flattered. But later, Buie said, “You would make a much better candidate. Why don’t you run for mayor?”
Howard was flabbergasted but allowed Buie to run the idea by Jim Shumaker, editor of the Chapel Hill Weekly newspaper. Buie assured Howard that Jim would keep their conversation confidential. Smash cut to the next week’s top headline: “Black to Run for Mayor” with Howard’s picture plastered on the front page. So much for that. He showed up a short time later at a Christmas party and found it abuzz with discussion about whether he should do it. The room was divided. One person who didn’t much care for the idea was Lillian, who despised politics. But Howard had allowed himself to daydream and decided he wanted to give it a go. Lillian gave a half- hearted blessing, saying, “I’ll go along with it for now, but don’t get me wrong. I’m not agreeing for you to run for mayor.”
He was 34, had only lived in Chapel Hill for five years and had no political experience.
‘A New South’
Howard assembled a team of black and white advisers in January 1969 and set to work. There were 15 people on the list for the first meeting. More than 50 showed up to the house at Tinkerbell. Howard’s mayoral bid had become a rallying point for progressives in Chapel Hill, including many faculty members. He actually had a bit more initial trouble in the black community. Hilliard Caldwell, a prominent Civil Rights leader, frankly told Howard during a meeting that many resented his living in a white neighborhood and attending a mostly white church. He responded that he was trying to break down barriers. A spirited campaign ensued through the winter and spring as sitting mayor Sandy McClamroch said he would not seek re-election and alderman Roland Giduz threw his hat in the ring. Howard estimates he attended more than 300 coffee meetings in people’s living rooms. College students from UNC, Duke and Bennett College “became foot soldiers” and knocked on every door in town. “It was the most organized campaigning that had ever been done,” Howard says.
A Jaycees meeting in April proved to be a turning point. He and Giduz had been invited to speak to the group of white business leaders. Howard knew it wasn’t his crowd. But he went in and did well, answering every question straight- forwardly. “I was told by more than one attendee that he had arrived supporting Giduz but left supporting me,” Howard says. One of those people was Joseph Nassif, who was so inspired by Howard that he decided to run for alderman. He won and helped Howard form a strong progressive voting bloc.
On Election Day, there was a massive get-out-the-vote effort. A local businessman offered his Rolls Royce to take people to the polls. Doug Clark of Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts offered his tour bus.
Howard was cautiously optimistic. As elections results started to come in, it became increasingly apparent he was going to win. A large crowd gathered outside his campaign headquarters. One local said the outpouring rivaled the celebration of the 1957 UNC basketball championship.
He gave his acceptance speech at nearby St. Joseph AME church, to accommodate the overflow crowd. “It was one of the happiest events of my life,” says the Rev. Robert Seymour, Howard’s pastor at Binkley. “There was singing and clapping and people feeling that we had turned the page. We got international publicity saying that this was a new South at last beginning to surface.”
The gravity of the moment got to Howard. He turned to Lillian and asked, “Now that I’ve got it, what am I going to do with it?”
‘Not Just a College Town’
Howard set out to make up for decades of neglect in the black community, starting with the cleanup of an extremely polluted ditch on Mitchell Lane. His first order of business was approved by a majority of aldermen.
He aggressively pursued federal funds to create public housing in Chapel Hill and made the housing authority director a full- time position, laying the groundwork for much more future housing. The Inter-Faith Council had raised money to build their own affordable housing, a 60-unit complex, but previous boards had denied the building permit because it was to be built near a white neighborhood. But the new board approved the project in 1970, and it was constructed within the year.
Howard also started laying out plans for a public transit system soon after taking office. Many supported it, but others worried about the expense. He pushed through, and the first fleet of buses rolled out in March 1971. Ridership was low at first, and a referendum later that year to create a full transit system in the upcoming election failed by a single vote, despite the fact that Howard won re-election with 64% of the vote. In 1974, after voter approval, the Chapel Hill Transit System finally was born. Forty years later, Chapel Hill has a fare-free system with ridership figures that are the envy of many other cities.
Recreational options were few and far between when he took office. That changed, too, with Howard appointing the first full- time recreation director and building tennis courts and ball fields all over town, as well as buying the land that would become Cedar Falls Park.
And Howard changed the way the town was governed, asserting town autonomy from the university. Time was, university officials had to sign off on the budget before town electeds could even consider it. That changed on Howard’s watch. “It was a community sitting under the thumb of a paternalistic institution,” Howard says. “In many ways it enslaved the university because the university had to be concerned about serving people who had no affiliation with them whatsoever. So I began to build an external identity as a municipality and not just as a college town.”
Howard received a whopping 89% in winning his third and final term. “I had a lot of resistance in the community, but, over time, people began to realize that I was not going to destroy Chapel Hill, that I was really dedicated to doing a good job. And most people started to come around.”
Howard had built a reputation in Chapel Hill as a capable leader. He parlayed that into runs for Congress in 1972 and for lieutenant governor in 1976. He lost narrowly in both instances, but the fact that a black man in 1970s North Carolina had such strong showings was remarkable enough. He was on the radar.
Gov. Jim Hunt named him to a cabinet position as secretary of the Department of Natural and Economic Resources. Howard knew next to nothing about the workings of the department but set out to learn, meeting with everyone from foresters in the mountains to fishermen on the coast. One of his major accomplishments was shepherding construction of the first phase of the N.C. Zoological Park in 1979.
He left the Hunt administration in 1980 to pursue business ventures, including concession stands at the refurbished RDU Airport, which he owned and operated until 2002 when Sept. 11 squeezed air travel and, subsequently, his business.
In 1990, he was appointed to fill the term of a state senator from Orange County and won election to the seat later that year. He kept it for all but one term – falling victim to the GOP Revolution of 1994 – until 2002. He became known as a champion of education, which led to his appointment in 2003 as chair of the state Board of Education, a position he held until 2009. He’d come a long way from that cocky first-grader in segregated Georgia, but his commitment to education, instilled by his mother, never left.
He’ll turn 80 in July, and these days, he runs the Howard Lee Institute, which helps high-potential students from low-income areas with peer support and tutoring. There’s a particular focus on math and science, in hopes that the students served by the Howard Lee Institute won’t have the same college struggles as its founder.
‘His Life’s Work’
Rev. Seymour observes that, given Howard’s historic contributions to the town, it’s puzzling that Chapel Hill hasn’t found a prominent way to honor his service. In 2005, then-Mayor Kevin Foy and Council Member Edith Wiggins proposed naming Town Hall for Howard and Lillian. But the Lees later withdrew from the idea after controversy arose about a town provision stating that “strong consideration” be given to dead persons when attaching a name to a government building. (This coincided with the racially charged hubbub over renaming Airport Road for Martin Luther King.)
Mayor Kleinschmidt says there are plans in the works for a fitting tribute. “We certainly want to remember those historic milestones, his policy achievements and reflect in some way his commitment to education,” the mayor says. “We want to help create a legacy that extends his life’s work into the future. His leadership was what readied our community to play an important part in our state’s history and its future. He readied us to be who we are today.” CHM