Howard Lee: Installments

Part 1: Child of Georgia

Episode 1 of Biographical Conversations with Howard N. Lee focuses on the future senator's childhood in Georgia. Born on a sharecropper farm in Lithonia, young Howard Nathaniel Lee eventually moved with his family to a small house in town. Five years old at the time, Howard Lee shared a room with his parents, grandparents, and three brothers.

The Lees were poor, but they were adamant about educating their children. Howard Lee's mother, Lou Temple Reed, had what her son calls a tremendous thirst for education. She had herself completed high school by taking correspondence courses, and then as a school teacher in DeKalb county for 36 years. Among her earliest students: her oldest son, Howard, who found out the hard way how demanding a teacher his mother was. In first grade at the time, Howard was among the brightest students in his class. But at the end of the year, his mother told him that she would not be promoting him to second grade. "You didn't do your best," she told him, "you just did enough to stay ahead of everyone else."

It was an invaluable lesson for her young son, who eventually was promoted, and who did well enough in school to finish second (in a class of seven) at Bruce School High School when he graduated in 1953. The school was all African-American, in keeping with the stinging segregation policies of Jim Crow Georgia. "I had always felt that segregation and oppression and the way black folk were treated, growing up, was not right. Just something was wrong with it. But I really didn't know what you could do about it."

As a teenager, Howard Lee tested the system, using a whites-only restroom at a nearby train station, and was chased home by members of the Klu Klux Klan for his efforts. "I remember sitting there, hurting, uh, a little embarrassed, feeling kind of stupid. And I was thinking about life and realizing that I had been exposed for the first time to what the results could be when one violates the standards of expectations in the South." Surviving that experience gave Howard Lee a new incentive: He wanted to overcome the racial inequity he lived in, not by taking on the system directly, but through other methods.

Instigating that kind of change takes resilience and determination, which is what Howard Lee showed as he struggled through three years at Clark College, a demanding school for which his meager high school experience had left him woefully unprepared. Told at the end of his junior year that his grades were too low to stay at the Atlanta institute, Howard Lee traveled to Fort Valley College, and literally spoke his way into the school. "You can come to Fort Valley, we'll admit you," he recalls the college president telling him. "You can live in the dormitory, but if you make anything less than a C your first term, you're outta here." Howard Lee held his own that semester and by the end of the year, he had made the Dean's List. In 1959 he graduating, becoming the first member of his family to hold a college degree.

Howard Lee left Fort Valley State excited about his future, but that would have to wait. During the Summer of 1959, he was drafted into the army. Weeks later, he reported for duty in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Part 2: From Korea to Chapel Hill

Episode 2 of Biographical Conversations with Howard N. Lee traces the future educational director from his army days to his successful and barrier-breaking mayoral candidacy. In 1959, freshly armed with a college degree, Private Howard N. Lee traveled from basic training in Fort Bening, GA, to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for six weeks of medical training. So highly successful at Fort Sam Houston that he was invited to apply to officer candidacy school (an offer he declined), Private Lee fully expected to be reassigned to the same base. Instead, his orders placed him at Fort Hood, where he would no longer be training as a medical corpsman, but instead, working in the motor pool.

Never one to take disappointments lying down, he decided instead to fight the army; he wrote a letter, not to his commanding officer, but instead to the president of the United States. What Private Lee didn't realize was that his letter to President Eisenhower, as well as one that he wrote to a United States Senator, was sent back to Fort Hood, and into the hands of Lee's outraged commanding officer, who nevertheless offered Lee a position as a social work technician. Lee enjoyed his new job, but an incident in the neighboring town of Killeen, Texas, would terminate his stay at Fort Hood and in many ways, transform his life.

While on an outing in Kileen, Private Lee walked into a restaurant, sat a counter, and asked for a cup of coffee. Told by the management that the shop did not serve African Americans, he was outraged and returned to his base, and clearly influenced by the recent event a Greensboro lunch counters persuaded some of his Army buddies to join him at a sit-in of the Killeen restaurant. Unfortunately for Private Lee, the general of the Fort Hood base got wind of the plot. When he refused to cancel his plan, he was told to pack his bags: he was leaving Fort Hood for Camp Casey, Army base in Korea.

Assigned as an ambulance driver at Camp Casey, Howard Lee once again successfully challenged his placement, convincing his commanding officer to give him a clerking position at a mental health clinic on the base. In addition to his clerical duties, he taught typing to soldiers, learned some Korean, and even performed as a singer with a jazz band.

Honorably discharged from the army in 1961, Howard Lee took a job as a juvenile probation officer in Savannah, Georgia. Shortly after moving to Georgia, he met Lillian Wesley, and the two married in 1962. The following year, he had another life-changing encounter when he was introduced to Frank Porter Graham. Howard Lee, who was in process of applying to universities to pursue a master's degree in Social Work, was quite impressed with the former University of North Carolina President, and in turn, Dr. Graham, who told Howard Lee that if he was going to a university, you might as well go to a REAL university and promised the young probation officer that if he could get accepted at UNC, Dr. Graham would help him find funding. Months later, he received a generous fellowship to the UNC School of Social Work.

In 1966, Howard Lee moved his new family to Chapel Hill. Lillian had two children, Ricky and Angela , from a previous marriage, for what all expected to be a two-year stay. Instead, the Lees made the North Carolina town their permanent home. Profoundly affected by Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, he vowed to become more involved in civic affairs. But what was initially a new interest in specific city ordinances grew into a much larger endeavor when he was persuaded to run for mayor of Chapel Hill. And against all odds, he emerged triumphant; in 1969, Howard N. Lee became the first African American to be elected mayor of a predominantly white southern city.

Part 3: Serving the State

Part three of Biographical Conversations with Howard N. Lee explores the pioneers' political career; his three terms as mayor Chapel Hill, which culminated in the public bus system he brought to the city in 1973; his ground-breaking selection as secretary of the Department of Natural and Economic Resources in Governor Hunt's state cabinet in 1977; his terms as state senator; and his ensuing entry into the North Carolina educational leadership.

Shortly after taking his mayoral oath of office, Howard Lee confronted a major issue when cafeteria workers at Lenoir Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill went on strike for better wages. Working in close conjunction with UNC President William Friday, Mayor Lee decided to pull the police off the campus, which removed protection for workers willing to cross the picket lines. Though some feared that chaos would ensue, the move instead forced further negotiations, and a quick settlement to the strike.

Howard Lee's other achievements while mayor included creating Chapel Hill's first recreation department and expanding the city's public housing ordinance. But perhaps his greatest achievement as mayor came during his third and final term, when he launched the first Chapel Hill Public Transportation System.

A year after leaving the mayor's office in 1975, he announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor. But though he emerged with more votes than his rivals during the first Democratic primary, he lost the runoff to the eventual winner, Jimmy Green. Hoard Lee went on to work on Jim Hunt's successful gubernatorial campaign, and two months after winning that election, Governor Hunt selected Howard Lee as Secretary of Natural and Economic Resources.

With that appointment, Howard Lee became the first African American state cabinet member in the history of North Carolina. "This to me was like a dream that came true because growing up in the South, I could not walk into the capital of my state government in Georgia," he says of his achievement. Secretary Lee hit the ground running, meeting with state fisherman to hear their grievances, and leading, along with Senator Russell Walker, successful efforts to establish the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro.

But the appointment had its challenges as well. He had to cope with issues of fraud in two of his subsidiary departments; although these situations were ultimately resolved, the relentless pressure and attention took its toll. "I was tired of being in the limelight of the negative articles and I needed to make a change." Though Governor Hunt expressed full confidence in his secretary, Howard Lee decided to resign his position in 1981.

In the mid 1980s he opened two concession stores at the Raleigh-Durham airport. His ambition at the time was to grow his business and stay out of public service, but politics beckoned again in 1989, when he successfully appointment to the state senate as a replacement for a resigning senator for Chapel Hill. Senator Lee ended up serving in the State Senate for most of the 1990s and in 2001, was named one of the five most effective senators in the legislature.

In 2003, Governor Mike Easley selected Howard Lee for the newly created position of senior education advisor, opening another avenue for the veteran policy maker's expertise. Howard Lee eventually won election as chairman of the state board of education, and in 2009, became director of Governor Bev Perdue's education cabinet.

Though he has always lived in the American South, in many ways Howard Lee has journeyed farther than the most wide-ranging travelers. On his way from a sharecropper's farm in Georgia to the leadership of education in North Carolina, he has touched and changed countless lives. "I was not someone who had great riches," he says, "but I lived as one of the wealthiest people in the world, because I had the opportunity to be I public service."