Howard and Lillian Lee Honored at Transit Center Naming Ceremony

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee (left) and his wife, Lillian, were honored with a ceremony naming the transit facility on Millhouse Road in their honor on Monday, June 20. Howard Lee, a former state senator, was instrumental in the formation of Chapel Hill Transit in 1974. Howard Lee enjoys the distinction of being the first Black mayor elected to office in a majority-white city in the South. Photo credit: Town of Carrboro.

GOVERNMENT

By Keith T. Barber

Editor-in-chief

The Local Reporter

On Monday, June 20, the Town of Chapel Hill named the transit facility on Millhouse Road in honor of Howard and Lillian Lee. Howard Lee, a former state senator and the town’s first Black mayor, was instrumental in the formation of Chapel Hill Transit in 1974.

Lillian Lee served as an advocate for children as one of the first teachers at the UNC Hospital School in 1965. She retired after many years of service as a counselor and administrator in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. 

During his remarks at Monday’s ceremony, Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils pointed out that Howard Lee’s leadership inspired Carrboro to become part of the Chapel Hill Transit partnership in 1983, and pointed out that Carrboro boasts the highest per capita public transit ridership of any town or city in the state.

Seils told The Local Reporter that Howard Lee’s status as the first Black person elected mayor of a majority-white city in the South made his tenure as mayor of Chapel Hill so much more meaningful. Thus, naming the Millhouse Road transit facility after Mr. Lee created an opportunity for Chapel Hill and Carrboro to “speak our values out loud in a manner that an everyday policy change doesn’t do as visibly,” Seils said.

“It’s important to honor the folks that have had such a huge impact on our communities,” he added.

Robert Drakeford, the first Black mayor of Carrboro, was a catalyst for change, Seils said, and his decision to bring the town into the Chapel Hill Transit partnership was inspired.

“Like Mayor Lee, Mayor Drakeford was interested in making this community a more accessible place for people who had been excluded for so long,” Seils said.

Last year, in the spirit of Howard Lee and Robert Drakeford, the towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough earned the distinction of becoming the first municipalities in the state to enact comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinances when a provision in state law preventing anti-discrimination laws expired in December 2020, Seils noted.

“Anything we can be doing at a systems level to open up our systems to more people or to be less exclusionary is important work,” Seils said.

During Monday’s ceremony, Seils addressed Howard Lee and Lillian Lee directly in a show of gratitude for their lasting legacy.

“We know now—as Mayor Lee knew from the start—that public transit is not a mere amenity, but a necessity—part of what makes a community accessible to more people,” he said. “Thank you, Mayor Lee and Ms. Lee, for your leadership and your example. I look forward to continued expansion of the local transit service you made possible.”

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