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Public School Forum honors Senator Howard Lee

The Public School Forum of North Carolina honored former North Carolina Senator Howard Lee with the 2017 Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award at a presentation at the Raleigh Convention Center on Thursday.

Howard Lee has been a leader and a trailblazer his entire life,” said Michael Priddy, chairman of the Public School Forum of North Carolina in a press release. “His lifetime of public service in support of children, including serving as our state’s first African-American chairman of the State Board of Education, stands as a shining example of the very best of North Carolina. Howard Lee exemplifies what we look for in selecting our annual award recipient: dedication, leadership and courage.”

Lee also served as the first African-American mayor of a majority white southern town — Chapel Hill, North Carolina — since reconstruction, and he was the first African-American cabinet secretary, leading the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, according to the press release.

During the event at the Raleigh Convention Center, many notable state leaders shared their recollections of Lee, including NC Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, and former state Governor Jim Hunt. 

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum, said that two words came to mind when he thought about Lee: Courageous humility.

He explained that Lee grew up in the deep South on a sharecropping farm during a dark time in America’s history. Lee moved to Chapel Hill in 1964 when it wasn’t the open, progressive place people think of today, Poston continued. Lee endured death threats and burned crosses on his yard, but through it all, Poston said that Lee persevered. 

“Howard Lee did not allow it to make him bitter. And he did not allow it to make him give up,” Poston said. “He faced it with courage and humility. You see, he did not let the hate change him. He set about changing the hate.” 

Former Governor Hunt talked with fondness about Lee’s contributions to the state. 

“This is a man who has made history, and is still making it, for North Carolina,” Hunt said. “I am so proud of this man. I am so fortunate to be his friend and his partner.” 

Hunt said Lee first came to his attention when Hunt was lieutenant governor of North Carolina.

“I spotted Howard Lee and I saw the great potential in him. I saw the great things he was doing. I saw his character. I saw his bravery, and I knew this was a man I wanted to work hand in hand with for North Carolina,” Hunt said. 

Watch a video of Gov. Hunt commemorating Lee: 

After receiving the Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award, Lee spoke to the crowd about his legacy and thoughts on what he wants to do next.

“There is one group that really concerns me, and I’ve got to find a way to make a difference in their lives. And that’s black boys. Our black boys are struggling in our schools and are the lowest performing group in any school one goes to,” he said, adding later. “These are some of the brightest boys I have ever met. They can learn, but you know what they’re missing? …relationships.”

See his acceptance speech:  

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.