On either side of downtown Franklin Street’s stonewall are not one but two Confederate markers. If we are what we remember, it is long past time for UNC and Chapel Hill to recognize similarly the town’s first African-American mayor: Howard Lee.
The monument known as “Silent Sam” sits on the “gown” side. It was erected in 1913 in honor of fallen Southern soldiers with UNC ties. On the town side is a highway marker dedicated to Jefferson Davis in 1955, ninety years after he led the Confederacy during America’s Civil War.
For a community that prides itself for being at the forefront of racial progress having these two markers greet the diverse student body, community members, and town visitors is incongruous. (Two other nearby markers — one referencing Daniel Boone, the other highlighting UNC Chapel Hill’s place as America’s first state university — do nothing to address the issue of having the principle commemorative focus of one of North Carolina’s most prominent thoroughfares be on the Civil War yet silent on civil rights.)
Luckily, addressing the oversight is easy. Commemorating black political pioneer Howard Lee, who in 1969 became the first African-American elected to lead a predominantly white southern city, would pay tribute to a remarkable man and acknowledge the advancements Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the South and our nation have made since the Civil Rights Movement gained steam in the 1950s.
The real dilemma is not whether to commemorate Howard Lee but where? Lee — former Chair of the state Board of Education and an education leader during his years in the state Senate — has done so much to improve K-12th grade and college-level learning that a campus marker would be fitting. Equally deserved would be a town side marker focusing on his many municipal contributions including his work to upgrade Chapel Hill’s bus system.
Wherever its placed, I support the addition of a tangible testament honoring Howard Lee. How about you?