J. Kenneth Lee, Who Was Among the 1st Black Students to Attend UNC at Chapel Hill, Dead at 94

A general view of the Bell Tower on the campus on October 4, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
A general view of the Bell Tower on the campus on October 4, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Photo: Streeter Lecka (Getty Images)

J. Kenneth Lee, one of four black students who joined a lawsuit that would ultimately lead to the desegregation of the University of North Carolina School of Law and who became one of the first black students to attend UNC at Chapel Hill, has passed away at the age of 94.

Lee passed away last week, but his funeral was held on July 30 in Greensboro, N.C., the Charlotte Observer reports.

Lee and his fellow plaintiffs were represented by famed American lawyer (and later associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States) Thurgood Marshall in the 1949 lawsuit. Marshall was also the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the time.


In June 1951, Lee, alongside Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, Floyd McKissick and James Robert Walker would become the first black students to be admitted in the history of the law school.

But Lee’s trailblazing did not stop there, he went on to become “a prominent civil rights attorney in Greensboro, with a career spanning more than five decades of active practice,” according to the university.

“Lee is one of the law school’s great citizens of the 20th century,” said Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC School of Law. “His strength and commitment to justice paved the way for students not only at the law school but at the university. His tireless work arguing civil rights cases across North Carolina created positive changes that are still felt today and will continue to be felt for years to come.”


According to the News & Record, Lee fought for equality across Greensboro City Schools, representing five black children who sued the district so that they could attend an all-white elementary school. Those students were among the first in the South to successfully start to integrate schools.

The News & Record notes:

He represented the majority of the 1,700 civil disobedience cases in North Carolina that started with the Woolworth sit-ins of 1960 and included the arrest of his own son, Michael.


Lee’s resilience and determination is obvious. He recalled in an interview with the Southern Oral History Program that he had never been on a school bus in his life or even owned a new school book.

When no banks would give him a loan so he could start building a house due to, of course, the color of his skin, Lee shrugged it off, starting his own savings and loan bank, American Federal, and built the home that he has lived in for decades, the Charlotte Observer notes.


Lee is survived by siblings and grandchildren. His wife, Nancy Young Lee, and his only child, Michael Lee, both passed away years prior.

News Editor at The Root, animation nerd, soca junkie, yogi

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It’s fascinating to me that I attended high school in NC, and got my degree from Chapel Hill (serving as a tour guide for at least 3 outta 4 years), and never even knew this man’s name.

Rest in peace and power.