BAR Awards Profile – Howard N. Lee ’66 (MSW)

2011 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Howard N. Lee ’66 (MSW)

When Howard Lee ’66 (MSW) came to campus from his native Georgia in 1964, Chapel Hill had the reputation as a quaint, idyllic village. And it was, for some people. Howard thought it should be so for everyone.

Throughout his career, Howard has pushed to extend to everybody services and opportunities that some of us take for granted. Like Harvey Beech ’52 (LLB), the namesake of the award he is receiving tonight, Howard is willing to create a path to smooth the journey for those who follow.

Events influenced him more than people, Howard said.

In the Army after college, he had been assigned to work in a mental health clinic, and later he worked as a juvenile probation officer in Savannah. A chance encounter with Frank Porter Graham (class of 1909) brought Howard to UNC for his master’s degree in social work, the first time he’d set foot in a major university and the first integrated environment he’d lived in outside of the military. Once equipped with an MSW, he received an offer from Duke for a position in an educational research program where he “made more money than I ever dreamed I’d make,” he said. And with that financial success, he and his wife, Lillian, bought a house in Chapel Hill outside the traditional black neighborhoods, the first black family to do so. Some white townfolk were sorely displeased.

The Lees lived with death threats. After a cross was burned on their lawn, Howard petitioned the town council to pass an open housing ordinance. But the governing board of the town that fancied itself liberal, progressive and integrated wouldn’t do it. A friend convinced Howard to run for mayor, just to get some of the issues out in the open. “Lo and behold,” he said, “I won.”

As mayor — for three terms — he recognized the hindrance a lack of public transportation caused, particularly in the black community, where fewer people had cars. He was almost run out of town for pushing to get buses, said Edith Wiggins ’64, a longtime friend and former Town Council member. He paved the streets; brought sewer lines to the black community, which did away with outhouses in town limits; and established public housing. The improvements were for the entire community, Edith said, not just for the poor.

“He was way ahead of his time,” Edith said.

When Gov. Jim Hunt ’64 (LLB/JD) appointed him secretary of the Department of Economic and Natural Resources in 1977, Howard became the first black cabinet member in North Carolina history. Having previously been on the faculty of N.C. Central University, he joined the School of Social Work at UNC in the 1980s. In 1990, he was elected to the state Senate, eventually serving 13 years and putting forth major educational legislation such as Smart Start, More at Four, the Excellent Schools Act and the Safe Schools Act.

Next he served as chair of the N.C. State Board of Education and, most recently, as executive director of the N.C. Education Cabinet. He now puts his energies full time into establishing the Howard Lee Institute for Equity and Opportunity in Education, aiming to identify talented and gifted students in low-performing schools statewide and to enhance their prospects of graduating high school and going on to college. He derives great satisfaction from helping others, particularly young people, take control of their lives.

But he would not have been able to accomplish all he has, Edith Wiggins said, without charisma and a good voice for preaching and singing. He sings solos and in the choir at Binkley Baptist Church.

His memoir, The Courage to Lead, was published in 2008.

Edith said Howard’s success comes from more than courage; he’s forward-thinking in a way that allows people to acknowledge that he was right and they were wrong, and they go on amicably, she said. “He doesn’t create enemies as he works for change.”