225 years of Tar Heels: Howard Lee

Carolina alumnus Howard Lee paved the way for future black leaders when, against all odds, he became the first African-American mayor of a majority-white town in the South.

Howard Lee.

225 Years.Editor’s note: In honor of the University’s 225th anniversary, we will be sharing profiles throughout the academic year of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.

Chapel Hill was the last place Howard Lee thought he’d end up.

Growing up in segregated Georgia, Lee had decided he would pack his bags and head north the minute he turned 18.

“I had grown up thinking, ‘I will leave the South and go to New York, Chicago, anywhere to get out of the South,’” Lee said in an interview for the University’s podcast, Well Said.

But when he was invited to pursue a master’s degree at the UNC School of Social Work in 1964, he found an accepting community — at least within the walls of Carolina’s classrooms.

“The students in the School of Social Work embraced [the black students], and of course we just simply didn’t feel any different from any other student,” he said. “So, that started me on a road of feeling recertified as a person.”

Lee continued to face racism outside of the classroom, though, and he made a decision to stay in the South, where he would work to resolve some of the racial tensions he experienced daily. After graduating with his master’s degree in 1966, he put his skills to good use in the Southern town he’d come to call home.

“I decided to run for mayor not so much to win — because I didn’t think a black person would be elected mayor in Chapel Hill — but to make a point to push certain issues that needed to be dealt with.”

But he did win, and he became the first black mayor of any predominantly white, Southern city in the United States.

Although Lee worked to bring necessary services to the black community, including water and sewage systems, he considered himself a mayor for all. He served three mayoral terms before launching a long career in state politics and returning to Carolina to serve on the faculty.

Lee never did move north.

Now 83 years old, he remains a longtime resident of Chapel Hill, where runs the Howard N. Lee Institute to improve North Carolina’s schools and support underserved students.

Keep Reading The road ahead