16th Annual Summer Public Health Research Videoconference on Minority Health

Howard N. Lee, M.S.W.

Howard N. Lee, M.S.W. is Executive Director of the North Carolina Education Cabinet. The Cabinet includes the Governor, the Chair of the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the President of North Carolina Community Colleges, the President of the University of North Carolina, and the President of the North Carolina Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Photo of Howard Lee, M.S.W.

The son of a Georgia sharecropper, Howard Lee grew up in an environment of blatant Jim Crow segregation, Ku Klux Klan rallies (every Friday afternoon), and frequent violence against blacks. At his high school graduation, "Mr. Charlie Davidson, as the lifetime chairman of the school board, delivered the commencement address in spite of the senior class protest.... He said that 'Flagg' [the principal] understood how to stay in his place and that more of our 'nigger' teachers needed to learn that." (The Courage to Lead, p60) After attending Clark College and Fort Valley State, Lee was drafted into the Army in 1959 and stationed in Texas and Korea.

Serving as a juvenile probation officer in Savannah, he attended a seminar by Frank Porter Graham, who encouraged him to apply to the School of Social Work at UNC and offered to help him find the tuition money if he was accepted. Lee was invited for an interview and took a night bus to Chapel Hill because he could not afford a hotel room. In 1964 he enrolled in the school as one of two black students in a class of forty, and the following year was elected president of the Student Social Work Association. In 1969 he made international news when he was elected the first African American mayor of a predominantly white southern town (Chapel Hill). Though unsuccessful in primary elections for Congress and Lieutenant Governor, Lee was re-elected mayor and then in 1976 was appointed secretary of the Department of Natural and Economic Resources by Governor Jim Hunt, becoming the first African American to serve in a governor's cabinet in the south.

Lee left his position at DNER during the first year of Governor Hunt's second term, and in 1982 was hired to teach social work classes at NC A&T State University by John Turner, who was then dean of the UNC School of Social Work (and the first African American dean at UNC Chapel Hill). Turner later gave Lee a full-time position in the School of Social Work. After another attempt to win a Congressional primary election, in 1984, Lee started an airport terminal concession business which he built up until the collapse of the travel industry following 9/11. Meanwhile, in 1990 he was appointed and then elected to the NC Senate, serving there until 1994 and then again from 1996-2002, during which time he was co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

After the Senate, Lee became a senior education budget advisor to Governor Mike Easley. Governor Easley soon appointed Lee to the NC State Board of Education, which unanimously elected him its first African American chairman. Easley also appointed Lee a member of the State Utilities Commission. After a second term as chair of the education board, Lee was appointed by Governor Bev Perdue to his current position of Executive Director of the NC Education Cabinet.

Howard Lee is a recipient of the William Richardson Davie Award from the UNC at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the Distinguished Service Medal from the UNC General Alumni Association.

Profile in the News and Observer
North Carolina Public Radio WUNC’s The State of Things Interview with Frank Stasio
North Carolina Public Television WUNC-TV’s NC People Interview with Bill Friday.

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, Howard N. Lee.
From his memoir,
The Courage to Lead: One Man's Journey in Public Service.

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    Annual Minority Health Conference led by the Minority Student Caucus
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Last updated: 5/24,25/2009 by Vic