Earlier this week, a brand new sign went up on Chapel Hill Transit’s operations center.
The Howard and Lillian Lee Transit Operations Center now honors the Lees. Howard Lee served as Chapel Hill’s mayor from 1969 to 1975, started our bus system and the Mountains-to-Sea trail, and was the first Black mayor to serve Chapel Hill.
Much has been written about Lee’s extensive service to our state and town over the years. Lee has given a number of interviews recounting his time in local and state politics and the racism he faced upon moving to Chapel Hill.
The Marian Cheek Jackson Center details how in the mid-1960s, Black university professors in Chapel Hill were denied housing outside of neighborhoods historically designated as “Black.” Lee, who moved to Chapel Hill to work on his doctoral degree, was repeatedly told that homes were unavailable.
In 1964, Lee and his wife Lillian began to look at houses in Colony Woods. At the time, Colony Woods was an all-white neighborhood — but did not have explicit covenants restricting who could live there. Still, it was understood that it was a whites-only neighborhood, and realtors restricted who homes were shown to.
As interviews with WUNC and the News and Observer recounts, it took Lee and his family six months and “some trickery” to buy a three-bedroom home in the subdivision. That’s because:
Lee and his wife knew just how sensitive their effort was. They would often send white friends to get the keys to homes they were interested in, and then the Lees would tour those homes. But when the Lees inquired about a specific house they liked, Lee says, invariably they would be told that the house was sold.
Lee recounted the episode in an interview with IndyWeek, noting that “because Chapel Hill was perceived as liberal, he and his wife thought they would not have any problems moving into a subdivision that was being built in east Chapel Hill.”
But they lived under the “threat of death” and their children were threatened at school. A cross was burned on their lawn. Their neighbor refused to turn her back while getting the morning paper. The Lees received threatening phone calls.
Lee went to town council, then known as the Board of Alderman, and asked them to adopt an open housing ordinance. They twice denied that request (though eventually passed it in 1968.) Lee ran for mayor the following year.
We point this out for several reasons:
This wasn’t very long ago.
The Lees were both at the ceremony honoring them in June.
Just because there aren’t explicit restrictions in covenants doesn’t mean that neighborhoods in Chapel Hill were not restricted.
Burning a cross on the first Black family’s lawn sends a signal, and a powerful one — You are not welcome here.
Ongoing conversations in Chapel Hill regarding missing middle continue to point to the lack of explicit racial language in covenants to explain that neighborhoods were not restricted. They were.
We recommend the 2021 paper “Systemic Racism and Housing” by A. Mechele Dickerson from the Emory Law Journal which details these practices.
The only significant difference between older and newer covenants was the lack of explicit racial prohibition. The restrictions imposing minimum lot sizes, minimum housing sizes, minimum housing costs, and which limited occupancy to one family were all designed to block Black families who, due to segregation, could not afford the higher costs each of these restrictions on housing.
They were restricted to neighborhoods like Northside, which had no such restrictions, and where the absence of “softer” efforts to discourage residency like cross burning and pro-segregationist neighbors made them feel more welcome.
The Lees are exceptional people, and most people are not going to risk making their family martyrs by moving into a community where people feel comfortable burning crosses on your lawn.
Part of what many people have grappled with in recent years is that individuals who do not hold racist views have still benefitted, structurally and at the population-level, from how racism influenced everything from our neighborhood design to where our highways are to where town dumps are placed.
Our neighborhoods were designed, through explicit and implicit restrictions in things like covenants and our zoning ordinances and through collective actions, to purposefully exclude Black people. That exclusion directed wealth to white people, while keeping it from Black people, and is inextricably intertwined with neighborhoods today.
That’s not a reflection on the people living in these neighborhoods today, that’s just a fact of history. That’s what developed the “neighborhood character” that is so often sought to be defended.
Geoff Green contributed to this piece.