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Howard Lee: A Historical Mayoral Election

On May 6, 1969, Howard N. Lee (b.1934) was elected mayor of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In doing so, he became the first African American elected mayor in a predominantly white southern town since Reconstruction. Thirty-nine years later, Documenting the American South is pleased to highlight materials in its collections that recall Lee's historic election.

A native Georgian, Lee moved to North Carolina in 1964 to attend the University of North Carolina. Graduating with a master's degree in social work in 1966, he was hired to direct a research program at Duke, and settled into a home in Chapel Hill's Colony Woods neighborhood. After a cross was burned on his front lawn, Lee decided to enter local politics. The 1969 mayoral election saw a record 4,734 votes cast in Chapel Hill, and at the end of the day, Lee defeated former newspaper editor Roland Giduz by 400 votes.

Rebecca Clark, an Orange County native and retired licensed practical nurse, worked for Lee's campaign and recalls going to extremes to increase voter turnout. In a June 21, 2000, interview conducted by Bob Gilgor, she remembers their efforts: "talk about working; we worked hard [on Lee's campaign]. At that time, my son had a Greyhound bus. My children were all registered to vote. We were getting everybody that we knew to vote. So on that election day—I'll never forget it—my son had a Greyhound bus . . . and he went street to street and they knew he was coming. We loaded them [onto the bus, and drove them] to the poll" (p. 21). Clark, an African American who was educated in racially segregated schools and who agitated for better pay and working conditions during her time as a University Laundry employee, also helped count ballots "by hand" on election night and was elated to find out that Lee had won, because she felt it "was time" for a black mayor (p. 21, p. 23).

Edwin Caldwell, Jr., a longtime political activist and former Chapel Hill Carrboro School Board member, also worked on Lee's mayoral campaign. In a March 2, 2001 interview conducted by Oliver White, Caldwell recalls that some white politicians in town tried to discourage Lee from running by arguing that Chapel Hill wasn't ready for an African American mayor: "They said, 'nah, we think it's to soon for Howard to run for mayor—why don't he run for Board of Aldermen[?]'" (p. 8). But Caldwell and Lee both refused to have their ambitions dictated by others. According to Caldwell, Lee's campaign was successful because it generated intense enthusiasm and grassroots support, support which Lee's campaign was able to organize efficiently. Caldwell recalls, for example, that the Lee campaign went "to Bennett College [for Women, in Greensboro, North Carolina] to talk with the history professor up there, to give credit for anybody that wanted to work in the campaign. That's what they did, we had all the class come down and work in Chapel Hill . . . Week in and week out that was their class project" (p. 9). This is just one example how the historic nature of Lee's candidacy enabled his campaign to garner support even from communities outside of Chapel Hill itself.

Still, Caldwell says that it was intimate knowledge of Chapel Hill, and especially of the town's African American community, that helped get Lee elected: "I had all the black registered voters on lists by street and alphabetical order. If somebody came in [to vote] . . . we would check them off. So we knew who had voted and who hadn't voted" (p. 10). Then, at 3 PM on election day, Caldwell sent volunteers out to contact registered African Americans who hadn't voted: "We went to the grocery stores. We went everywhere. We went to their doors . . . We would go to Miss So-and-so [and say] we want to take you down to vote, [and she would say] 'I've voted already,' I said 'no there must be some mistake here, cause we got people in the polls and you haven't voted.' 'I can't go, I can't walk.' We got a car here. 'I got to go to the grocery store.' As soon as you go vote we will take you to the grocery store. 'Well, OK.' And they would go in there and get dressed up and we take them off" (p. 10). By refusing to take no for an answer, Caldwell and the campaign volunteers he organized helped increase the turnout of voters who favored Lee.

The joy in the African American community in Chapel Hill following Lee's election was evident: Caldwell recalls that "you could just see their backs straighten up and see how proud they were" (p. 11). Lee went on to win his next two mayoral elections by large margins. He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1972 and Lieutenant Governor in 1976. He was elected to the North Carolina state senate, serving there from 1990 to 1994 and again from 1996 to 2002. In 2003, Lee became the first African American elected by the North Carolina Board of Education to be its chair.

The interviews cited in this Highlight are part of DocSouth's Oral Histories of the American South project, which is in the final phase of making available online over 500 oral history interviews selected by the Southern Oral History Program. And although DocSouth does not have any oral history interviews with Howard Lee available online, readers interested in interviews with Lee himself will find them in the Southern Oral History Program papers in UNC Libraries' Southern Historical Collection.

Works Consulted: Graham, Nicholas. "This Month in North Carolina History: May 1969—Howard Lee," online article, (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, May 2004), (accessed May 1, 2008); "North Carolina State Board of Education: Member Profiles," webpage, (NC State Board of Education, publication date unknown), (accessed May 6, 2008).

Harry Thomas