Written by Jessica Cooke Scarborough
One of the reasons I love Atlanta is for its richness in Black History and Black Excellence. Atlantans are literally surrounded by greatness and legends! One such legend is my grandfather, Jesse Hill Jr., a prominent Atlanta businessman, civil rights leader, political activist and change agent who played a part in every major development in the City of Atlanta for over 40 years. I am proud to be his namesake.
Jesse Hill Jr. was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1926 with business and service in his blood. He grew up assisting his mother who was active with their local Urban League and his grandfather who sold wood and coal in the winter and ice and watermelons in the summer. Jesse received his Bachelor of Science in mathematics and physics from Lincoln University and his Masters of Business Administration from the University of Michigan, becoming one of their first African American MBA graduates. At the completion of his studies, Hill moved to Atlanta becoming an actuary with Atlanta Life Insurance Company making him only the second African American actuary in the entire country.
Professionally, Hill rose steadily through the corporate ranks of Atlanta Life and in 1973 Hill became Atlanta Life’s third President, Chief Executive Officer and the Chairman of the Board. Simultaneously, Hill became the first president outside of the family of founder Alonzo Herndon, another legend in #BlackHistory and in life. Hill went on to hold this position for over 20 years setting record breaking growth in total assets, revenues, profits and shareholder value and Hill’s professional and civil rights activities were always closely intertwined.
Under Hill’s leadership, Atlanta Life quietly underwrote finances for civil rights initiatives throughout Atlanta and the South, including providing bail money to release demonstrators arrested in sit-ins and other protests. Hill and Atlanta Life Insurance Company are also credited for increasing African American access to affordable mortgage financing in the South.
Soon after his arrival to Atlanta in 1949, Hill quickly became acquainted with most of the key leaders of the time through the Hungry Club which held its meetings at the Butler Street YMCA where Hill first resided and which was then the only forum for black and white leaders to collectively engage in serious dialogue on contemporary issues. As Chair of virtually every major voter registration drive in the black community during the 1960s registering over 50,000 new black voters, Hill also founded and chaired the All Citizens Registration Committee, a precursor to a political organization that has since nurtured the careers of Atlanta’s last four mayors. And though Hill never held a political office, he had an ear to nearly every high ranking politician in Georgia from President Jimmy Carter to city council members and everyone in between.
Hill founded The Atlanta Inquirer, the weekly newspaper that became the voice of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. And in 1960 along with other young black leaders of the time, Hill produced a survey of Atlanta’s black population entitled “A Second Look: The Negro Citizen in Atlanta” which challenged the predominant belief in Atlanta’s white community that Atlanta was a model for racial harmony in the South. Hill was also a key player in the integration of Georgia colleges and universities namely the University of Georgia.
Hill achieved a laundry lists of first for African Americans. In 1977 he was elected president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and became the first African American to hold such a position in any major U.S. city. An integral figure in bringing public transit to Atlanta, Hill was appointed the first chair of MARTA Board of Directors and first African American to serve on the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia. He was also elected as the first black member of the Board of Directors of the Commerce Club, and was the first African American receipt of the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Progress and Service. Hill served on a number of corporate boards including Delta Air Lines, SunTrust, Comsat, Knight-Ridder, Morse Shoes, National Service Industries, and Rich’s, often as the first minority member.
Hill served as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change for over 15 years and also chaired the local NAACP, and was also a key player in bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to the City of Atlanta and subsequently served as a member of the Board of Directors for the 1996 Olympic Games. He had a knack for bringing the city’s white leaders and black leaders together at one table to transform Atlanta from a mid-sized southern city to the large international city we think of today.
My grandfather left his earthly body and transitioned to heaven on December 17, 2012 but his legacy is all around Atlanta! Whether taking Marta to a game, running through Harts-field Jackson International Airport, or riding down I-75/85 and passing the exit for Jesse Hill Jr. Drive in the heart of downtown, I am reminded of the words of another Black History leader and family friend, “Nothing good and nothing of importance happened in this town that Jesse wasn’t somehow involved in.”
Jessica Cooke Scarborough, Esq. is a third generation Atlantan and an Ivy League educated attorney who completed her Bachelor of Arts, Cum Laude, from the University of Pennsylvania and her Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law. Following law school, Jess practiced at one of Atlanta’s largest and most well respected law firms. In more than five years of legal practice, Jess represented developers, lenders, borrowers, asset managers, and financial institutions in a wide array of real estate, finance, lending and securitization issues. Jess became an agent with Beacham & Company in 2014 and has been one of the firm’s most consistent producers. She and her husband, Jae, have two daughters and live in Smyrna.