Alumni Spotlight: Howard Nathaniel Lee, ’59

First African-American ever generally elected to lead a majority white city in the South

Apr. 1, 2018

When FVSU alumnus Howard Nathaniel Lee, 1959, became mayor of Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1969, he made American history. No African-American had ever been generally elected to lead a majority white city in the South before. Chapel Hill is the home of the University of North Carolina’s main campus.

Lee was inspired to enter politics after encountering racism in the predominantly white Chapel Hill neighborhood where he lived, and he decided to make a difference, winning the mayoral election by a narrow margin. He revolutionized the town by helping to usher in transit services, affordable housing, and public parks in the city. He went on to be reelected twice in landslides, and then hold other major political offices in North Carolina. In 1977, the governor appointed him Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, making him the first African American to serve in a governor’s cabinet in the south. He later was elected to the North Carolina State Senate, focusing on improving public education in the state. In 2003, the North Carolina State Board of Education named him its first African-American chairman, and then in 2009, Governor Beverly Perdue appointed him executive director of the North Carolina Education Cabinet. He was awarded the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest honor, in 2014.

Lee’s autobiography is called The Courage to Lead, One Man’s Journey in Public Service. It tells the story of his rise from a Georgia sharecropper’s farm to make American political history, succeeding in the face of blatant racism. He first enrolled at Clark College, but flunked out. He then came to Fort Valley State College asking for a second chance, which President C.V. Troup personally granted. Three years later, Lee became the first in his family to earn a college degree by graduating from FVSC. He was drafted into the U.S. Army, then went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He taught on the faculties of Duke University, and North Carolina A&T University.

After his retirement from government, Lee founded the Howard N. Lee Institute to provide tools and resources to ensure that high-risk middle and high school students have equitable access to high quality education and are prepared to succeed in college, career, and life. Key initiatives of the institute of include community engagement and the STEM Scholars Prep Academy.

From Lee’s book:

“I symbolize the black man
Who is not in the place he expected to be,
But who really does want the world to see
That he has overcome, that he has survived,
And in the new age coming, continues to rise.”

The Black Man’s Journey by Howard N. Lee

Learn more about Howard Nathaniel Lee from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health.

Watch: Lee discusses his life at the Durham County Library.

Read: Howard the First in Chapel Hill Magazine.

Fort Valley State University