Monday marked 50 years since Howard Lee became the first African American to be elected mayor of a predominately white town in the south since Reconstruction. Lee recently recounted his election as mayor of Chapel Hill when speaking with town officials.

“It was not planned as much as it was accidental,” Lee said.

Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee. Photo via Wilson Library, UNC.

Like many other political careers, Lee’s began through his own advocacy. Lee moved to Chapel Hill and began looking for a home, but he said he looked for homes in areas were black families had not typically lived.

“Because this is a liberal community, who’s going to have a problem buying a house because of race,” Lee recalled. He said realtors wouldn’t show his family homes, “much less sell one.”

“We did end up buying in Colony Woods. And for the next year, we all lived under the threat of death.”

A cross was burned in Lee’s front yard during that time.

Lee took his battle to the local governing board, at that time known as the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen. He asked for the board to adopt an open housing ordinance, and Lee said that request was denied twice. So he ran for mayor.

“Not so much to win,” Lee said, “but to force whomever would be the candidate who would win to commit to doing some of the things I’d like to have done.”

During the campaign, which Lee described as very dignified and avoiding negative politics despite the racial tension of the time, Lee said he was advocating for ideas that he thought pushed the boundaries, including public transit and expanding public housing.

“I went on and on and on,” Lee said. “Why? Because I knew I was not going to be elected mayor. On voting day, I was sure that the race was lost; I wasn’t even worried about trying to write an acceptance speech.

“And two hours after the polls closed, I was the mayor.”

Lee won that election and began pushing for those promises that seemed so far off in the campaign. But he said at the Town Council meeting last week that he was prouder he had an impact on the community at large.

“The most important thing I think is the young people who were inspired to go on and to commit and to serve their community: people like the chief of police, people like the fire chief. These were young kids when I was coming along.”

Howard’s wife, Lillian, who has championed many community efforts over the decades, thanked the current Town Council for honoring Howard, but she also commended the town’s work honoring the Chapel Hill Nine – a group of black teenagers who led protests in Chapel Hill during the Civil Rights era.

“These were young men who were teenagers, who helped blaze the trail and made it a little easier for us,” she said.

Lee was given a key to the town at last week’s Town Council meeting.

Lee served three terms as Chapel Hill mayor and went on to serve in the North Carolina Senate, among other accomplishments.