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Remembering Atlanta Business Icon Jesse Hill, Jr.

Remembering An Atlanta Business Icon: Jesse Hill, Jr.
Atlanta businessman And Civil Rights Leader Succumbs

Jesse Hill, Jr.
May 30, 1926 – December 17, 2012

By John B. Smith, Jr.

Jesse Hill, Jr. passed on Monday morning, December 17, 2012 at the age of 86. Hill was born in St. Louis, Missouri on May 30, 1926. He graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics in 1947. It is at Lincoln University where Hill became a member of his beloved fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. He received his MBA from the University of Michigan in 1949 at the Ross School of Business. He moved to Atlanta shortly thereafter, initially living at the Butler Street YMCA, the headquarters of Atlanta’s Black leadership during that period. The street where the YMCA is located has been renamed in his honor. Hill had been ill for the last several years, is survived by his devoted wife, Azira Gonzales Hill, and his two daughters, Nancy Cooke and Azira Kendall, and several grandchildren.

Hill’s wake was held on Thursday evening, December 20th beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Big Bethel A.M.E. Church at 200 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. The funeral was held on Friday, December 21 at 11 a.m. at Big Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Jesse Hill, Jr. was a tireless servant, advocate and champion for the City of Atlanta and its business community. He also volunteered for both the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Hill joined Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1949 as an actuary. At that time, he was only the second Black actuary in the country. In 1973, he was elected president and chief executive officer, becoming the company’s third president and the first not to be a family member of Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta Life Insurance Company’s founder. During Hill’s tenure as chief executive, Atlanta Life experienced its most impressive period of growth since its founding. He served as chairman until his retirement in 1995. During his leadership, Atlanta Life became the largest Black-owned life insurance company in the United States.

Hill was one of a handful Black businessmen who helped set the non-confrontational tone of race relations in the Atlanta business community.

Hill helped to ease racial tensions in Atlanta. He was a crucial member of various integrated initiatives and forums in Atlanta that worked for strong race relations in the business community. These initiatives built partnerships between White and Black business leaders. John Cox of Delta Air Lines and real estate leader Bill Callaway were two other such leaders that helped to pave the way for business change and leadership integration.

Hill ran political campaigns for Maynard Jackson, first Black mayor of Atlanta, as well as for Congressman and later United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young.

In 1977, Jesse Hill, Jr. was the first Black president (now called the chairman) of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (now called the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce). During his term, he worked with chamber members and government and business leaders to raise Atlanta’s profile regionally, nationally and internationally. He participated in several economic trade missions to Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland, and also accompanied President Jimmy Carter on a trade mission to Nigeria.

He was also the first Black member of the Georgia Board of Regents and the first Black member of the board of directors of the Rich’s Department Store.

He worked alongside Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on voting rights issues and voter registration in the Black community. Hill’s contributions are numerous and profound. He led efforts to fully integrate the University System of Georgia; to increase Black voter registration numbers; and to expand Black access to affordable mortgages. Hill and Atlanta Life Insurance Company are given credit for increasing Black access to affordable home-mortgage financing in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Florida.

In 1960, Jesse Hill, Jr. quickly became a part of The Atlanta Inquirer newspaper team, advocating the Black voice and the voice of Black collegiates at the local Black colleges. Hill supported the Black Student Movement which began the drive for the civil rights movement. Within weeks, Hill became president and publisher and remained in that position until 1985, when current publisher John B. Smith, Sr. took over the reins. The Atlanta Inquirer owes its existence to Hill’s stewardship.

He helped to desegregate Atlanta Public Schools, and was involved in the desegregation of the University System of Georgia. In 1960, Hill, along with other young Black leaders of the Atlanta Committee for Cooperative Action, including Grace Towns Hamilton and Whitney Young, produced a survey of Atlanta’s Black population entitled “A Second Look: The Negro Citizen in Atlanta.” This document challenged the predominant belief in Atlanta’s white community that the city was a shining beacon for racial harmony in the South, “the City Too Busy to Hate.” As a member of the NAACP’s education committee, Hill began recruiting Black students to challenge segregation in Georgia’s colleges and universities. He met with students Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter to discuss plans to desegregate Georgia State College (later Georgia State University). At Holmes’s request, however, the plans were modified and efforts were focused instead at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, Georgia. Holmes and Hunter were ultimately the first two Black undergraduate students admitted to University of Georgia (UGA). In addition to UGA, Hill is known for helping and leading the front to desegregate other institutions in Georgia, including Georgia Tech.

Hill also had been highly instrumental in the formation of MARTA. He was a founding director in the early 1970s. He served as a long-time board chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Many local businessmen, such as Atlanta Inquirer Publisher John B. Smith, Sr., recall the 6:00 a.m. phone calls from Hill. Hill was known for calling and giving direction or calling a meeting. He would quickly hang-up before the person called was fully awake.

Hill had been active in the civic and business communities of Atlanta for more than fifty years. As a member of the board of directors for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, he was instrumental in bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta. During the 1990s, Hill received an honorary doctor of laws degree from his alma mater, the University of Michigan, and was involved in entrepreneurial activities, including the development of wireless communications in Nigeria.

Hill served on the boards of major corporations, including Knight Ridder, Delta Air Lines, National Service Industries and SunTrust.

He was a founding director on the board of MARTA and the first Black to serve on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

In 2001, the city of Atlanta renamed Butler Street between John Wesley Dobbs and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive to Jesse Hill, Jr. Drive in his honor.

United States Representative John Lewis on Jesse Hill Jr.: “I first met Jesse Hill Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. He was a tireless fighter for civil and human rights. He conducted voter registration efforts in Atlanta long before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. He was a strong supporter of the Atlanta student movement, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he assisted Mrs. Coretta Scott King in helping to build the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. He was also a leader in getting African-American support behind the development of MARTA.”

“During the past 50 years, very little progress has been made in Atlanta without the involvement of Jesse Hill. He was a very successful business man, and he used his position as the CEO of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company to get things done, not just to position himself, but to advance the causes of equality, social justice, and humane business practice for all of the people of the city. He envisioned Atlanta as a cornerstone in the South of a transformed and renewed America. And he did more than dream, but he worked to make that vision a reality.”

“Jesse Hill was a man of unbelievable energy. He did not like drawn out meetings. He was in one place one moment and somewhere else the next. He was a wonderful friend to me. He would always call me early in the morning, and sometimes he would just say, ‘John I’m thinking about you.’ “

“Jesse Hill helped Atlanta become what it is today. He helped support my run for Congress in 1986. As a matter of fact, he came to me when it looked like everyone else wanted to go another way, and threw his support behind me. He is one of the major reasons that I became a Congressman in 1986. Many people in this city, including Maynard Jackson, Andy Young, Jimmy Carter and me are deeply indebted to Jesse Hill. We have lost one of the strongest pillars in this city.”

Mayor Kasim Reed on the Passing of Jesse Hill Jr.: “Today, the City of Atlanta mourns the passing of an exemplar in business and civic leadership. Jesse Hill Jr. was an essential figure in bridging the divide between the business community and the African-American community in our city. His legacy lives on and his tireless passion for empowering generations of Americans continues. I stand as a personal beneficiary of his great work. His passing is very sad for me personally and for this city. Atlanta would not be what it is today without Jesse Hill Jr.’s extraordinary contributions. We have all of his family members in our prayers and in our hearts.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley C. Franklin: “I will fondly remember Jesse Hill, Jr. for his creative ideas and endless energy, his early morning calls, his 5-minutes civic lectures and his valued leadership in all matters that made a huge, lasting difference in transforming Atlanta into a racially integrated and influential American city.” Evelyn G. Lowery, Founder and Board Chair, SCLC/WOMEN, Inc.: “Jesse Hill, Jr. was a trailblazer and icon of the civil rights movement. The Lowery family knew him well through his contributions with SCLC’s board of directors. Mr. Hill was also both compassionate and supportive of women in the movement. We shall miss him, and will appreciate his influential stance for justice and equality.”

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell: “I am deeply saddened of Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr.’s death. However, I am thankful for his influence on me personally and on Atlanta’s civic, business and political communities. He will be remembered as one of Atlanta’s greatest leaders, and his legacy will live on through entrepreneurs, civic leaders and business professionals not only in Atlanta but also across the nation.”

Michael Julian Bond, Atlanta city councilman: “My heart is heavy in learning of the great Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr.’s passing. He was not only a pioneering leader but also one of the greatest leaders in Atlanta’s history. We are impoverished by his loss, but our spirits are inspired by his life’s example.”

Kwanza Hall, Atlanta city councilman: “Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr. was truly an iconic figure in Atlanta. I am so appreciative for what he did, not only for me personally but also for the African-American community, Atlanta as a whole, and the Butler Street YMCA, in particular. My thoughts and prayers will remain with the Hill family; he will be truly missed.”

C. T. Martin, Atlanta city councilman: “Jesse Hill, Jr. is going to be missed by many as one of the city’s outstanding visionaries and leaders who had an important role in history as an activist for civil rights. As we make decisions, we will always keep him as the reference point of a positive example by which to lead.”

Fulton Co. Board of Commissioners Chairman John Eaves, Ph.D: “It’s with great sadness that we mourn the passing of Jesse Hill, Jr., a legendary figure in our state’s history, and a man of great personal integrity and purpose. His landmark accomplishments in Atlanta’s business community and his visionary leadership in our nation’s civil rights movement will be remembered and honored for years to come.”

Bernard Lafayette, Chairman of the Board, SCLC: “Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr. played a vital and significant role in the civil rights movement. He also represented leadership from the corporate community which gave financial support and an authenticity to the movement for social change.”

DeKalb Co. CEO Burrell Ellis: “Jesse Hill, Jr.’s influence has been felt in all areas of (life). He was a champion of the civil rights movement, and one of the first and few that realized the importance of personal wealth to the African-American community. He left a lasting impression, and he will be sorely missed.”

Dexter Scott King, Chairman of the Board, The King Center: “On behalf of the King Center, I extend my heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Hill and the Hill family. His numerous contributions to the growth and development of the King Center were instrumental in all that we’ve been able to achieve over the years. His energetic example of dedication to the legacy of my father and mother remains an inspiration to us all.”

Bernice King, CEO, The King Center: “We will miss Jesse Hill, Jr.’s energetic commitment and positive spirit he brought to his many endeavors in service to our community. Our hearts and prayers go out to the Hill family on the loss of a wonderful man and a great Atlanta leader.”

Jesse’s-Azira’s Collage By Horace Henry

Last updated on September 9, 2022

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