Diversity and Inclusion

 UNCW Mourns the Passing of Helena Lee, First Director of Upperman African American Cultural Center


The UNCW community is saddened to share news of the passing of Helena Joyce Lee, who served as the first director of the Upperman African American Cultural Center. 

Lee joined UNCW in 1995 as the assistant director of the Office of Cultural Diversity, later renamed the Office of Minority Affairs, and as director of the Upperman Center. She left UNCW in 2004. 

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Elder Helena Lee. Her tenure as the longest-standing director of the center and having inaugurated a successful Saturday Sankofa academy are laudable accomplishments,” said Sean Palmer, executive director of the Upperman African American Cultural Center. “We seek to remember her in this, our 25th anniversary year, and hope to be able to celebrate her as we expand our offerings, our reach and space post-COVID-19. For today, we pray for her family and all of the many people whose lives she touched.” 

Lee’s professional career included serving as manager of training, staff development and diversity in the West Valley/Mission Community College District in Saratoga, CA; director of the Commission on the Status of Women and women’s coordinator at the Office of Affirmative Action at Santa Clara County government in San Jose, CA; academic counselor, director of the Academic Enhancement Center and interim dean of students at Cape Fear Community College. She was also a teacher, professor and part-time lecturer at various community colleges and universities throughout the country. 

Lee attended Wilmington public schools after graduating from Williston High School. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Buffalo. She furthered her education by earning a Master of Arts degree in Special Education from Buffalo State Teachers College. A lifelong learner, she continued her post-graduate education by taking courses in college administration, mediation and conciliation, management of affirmative action and mid-level management at San Jose State University, Arizona State University and DeAnza College. While in California, she served as moderator and founder of the Black History Academy and Computer Education Program and moderator/facilitator of Black Presbyterian Women of Northern and Southern California. 

When she returned to Wilmington, she joined Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church, where she wrote several grants that resulted in the creation of the Computer Awareness Program Systems and the church’s child development center. From 2004-06, she served as the associate executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina. She was also a facilitator for Leadership School and the African American Church Conference. She was involved in many organizations on the national level of the denomination, including serving as the secretary to the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, a member of the African American Presbyterian Network and the Committee on the Self Development of People. Lee was involved in various community organizations and was a member of the Psi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. 


--Venita Jenkins