Jesse Hill, Jr. was one of the first African American business men whom I met shortly after moving from Durham, North Carolina to Atlanta in 1963. While working as director of program planning at Economic Opportunity Atlanta, I was assigned to work with the planning committee of the EOA Board of Directors – which Mr. Jesse Hill chaired. I quickly learned that he was a force in the Atlanta Black community. What I didn’t know was that Jesse Hill was a force to be reckoned with in every community in Atlanta, Georgia, and the world.
This Atlanta History Maker was born in St. Louis, Missouri on May 30, 1926. He arrived at the old train terminal in Atlanta in 1949 at the ripe old age of 23, having just completing a Bachelor of Science in math and physics from Lincoln University and a MBA in actuarial science from the University of Michigan. He joined the Atlanta Life Insurance Company as an actuarial assistant and rose through the rank to become the third President and CEO, a position he held for over 20 years.
When Jesse Hill Jr. took control of the company in 1973, he was the first president who was not a direct descendent of its founder, Alonzo Herndon. During his over 20-year tenure as president, Atlanta Life continued to experience dramatic growth and profitability. And as head of what is now the largest financial institution in America (Atlanta Life Financial Group) controlled by African Americans, he continued to build upon the company’s strong tradition of supporting human and civil rights activism. While president, Hill directed his company to quietly underwrite civil rights initiatives throughout the south, such as providing bail money to release individuals arrested in sit-ins and other protests.
For over nineteen years, Hill served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change. He also chaired the local chapter of the NAACP, and founded The Atlanta Inquirer, the weekly newspaper that became the voice of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. When Jesse Hill Jr. took control of the company in 1973, he was the first president who was not a direct descendent of its founder, Alonzo Herndon. During his over 20-year tenure as president, Atlanta Life continued to experience dramatic growth and profitability. And as head of what is now the largest financial institution in America (Atlanta Life Financial Group) controlled by African Americans, he continued to build upon the company’s strong tradition of supporting human and civil rights activism. While president, Hill directed his company to quietly underwrite civil rights initiatives throughout the south, such as providing bail money to release individuals arrested in sit-ins and other protests.
Over the course of his career, this renaissance man compiled a long list of “door opening firsts” for African Americans. Appointed the first chair of Atlanta’s Metropolitan Area Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) Board of Directors, he also was the first African American selected to serve on the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia. In 1977, he was elected president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the first African American to hold such a position in a major U.S. city. He also was elected as the first black member of the Board of Directors of the Commerce Club, the elite venue of Atlanta’s previously all-white power structure. Most recently, he is the first African American recipient of the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Progress and Service. Hill has served on the boards of a number of corporations such as Comsat, Delta Air Lines, Knight-Ridder, Morse Shoes, National Service Industries, Rich’s, S & H Corporation, and SunTrust, often as the first minority member.
In the early 1970’s, when the future of Citizens Trust Bank was threatened, at the request of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Georgia State Banking Commissioner, Jesse Hill guided the re-capitalization of Citizen Trust. A special stock offering was designed and purchased by Atlanta Life, the major Atlanta banks and the Ford foundation. Under the leadership of I. O. Funderberg, President and Herman J. Russell, Chairman, Citizen Trust recovered and the bank repurchased the stock of the special offering.
Recent awards given to him include the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change, “Salute to Greatness” award, Atlanta Gas Light’s and WSB Radio Shining Light Award, the Robert Ross Johnson’s Humantarian Award presented by the Buckhead Rotary Club. He was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame (by the Trumpet Awards Foundation, Inc.) and inducted into the Butler Street YMCA’s Legacy Circle. Morehouse College named him “A Candle In The Dark for Leadership; along with Oprah Winfrey and Ossie Davis both receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards. He has been the recipient of numerous distinguished national and international awards, and Honorary Degrees, including Honorary Doctorates from Atlanta University, Bethune Cookman College, Chun Ang University of Seoul Korea, Clark College, Lincoln University of Missouri, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College and the University of Michigan.
Atlantans recognize that it is as a political leader that he has contributed so much. It was at the Butler Street YMCA that Hill tested the waters with the Hungry Club. This forum provided the only opportunity at that time where black and white leaders could engage in dialogue on current issues. Jesse was the chair of many voter registration drives in the Black community during the 1960’s and he served as campaign chairman for Maynard Jackson who was elected in 1973 as the first African American mayor of a major southern city; and also Andrew Young, the first African American elected to Congress from Georgia and the south since Reconstruction. He has also worked with Mayor Shirley Franklin, our present mayor, and was chairman of the task force charged with providing a suitable tribute to the late Mayor Ivan Allen and the late Maynard Jackson.
On a personal note, Jesse was devoted to his mother and his maternal grandfather. He says, “I feel that if I have helped to advance a community, helped others and have been responsible for creating something of value, whatever I may have been able to accomplish, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. My mother and my maternal grandfather are the giants of which I speak.”
Jesse Hill is married to Azira Gonzalez Sanchez Hill of Holquin, Cuba. They have two daughters, Nancy married to Charles (Rick) Cooke and Azira married to Errol O. Kendall. The Hill’s have six grandchildren: Charnan Jessica Cooke, Jonathan Charles Cooke, Mark Oliver Kendall, John Robinson Kendall, Zachary Robinson Kendall, and Michelle Alexandra Kendall
Always willing to give his time for a worthy cause, Jesse said “yes” to many organization and people who were in need. In his hay-day, he was an extraordinarily busy man who is known for moving in and out of meetings, leaving his suggestions and ideas for solutions. All of us know that the best way to get something done is to ask a busy person to do it. And so, Atlanta has always asked Jesse to do it or for his advice on how to get it done. Atlanta owes Jesse Hill a big debt of gratitude for all the things he has done. Throughout his career he has been a renaissance man . . . making history. Thank you, Jesse.