Hill, Jessie Jr. 1927–
Jessie Hill, Jr. 1927–
Executive, actuary, civil rights activist
Jesse Hill, Jr. has led a life of firsts. According to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Hill was “the first black member of the board of directors of Rich’s department store, the first black president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce,” and the “first black member of the Georgia Board of Regents.” Hill was also the second black man to be an actuary in this country after he graduated from the University of Michigan.
Jesse Hill, Jr. grew up on the southeast side of St. Louis. It was not the best neighborhood for a young boy, but his mother, Nancy Dennis Martin, did not have many choices as her husband left the family when Jesse and his sister were young. The oldest of 15 children, Nancy had left school to marry Jessie Hill, Sr. and raise their children, but ended up supporting her family by working in a laundry steam room belonging to the Pullman Company. “I learned from her to be industrious” asserted Hill in the Atlanta Constitution and Journal, adding that his grandfather “taught me to be enterprising.”
In the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Hill spoke of his grandfather, who sold ice during the summer and coal during the winter out of the same wagon. He further noted that his grandfather used the ice to keep melons cool, which he sold after the ice was gone for the day. He also owned a moving company, “moving people for the lowest price in town and squirreling away the castoff furniture in a used furniture store. ‘He was something to watch. He had the soul of the entrepreneur, and he knew the importance of timeliness.”’
After graduating from the local public high school, Hill attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Lincoln was founded after the Civil War by black veterans of the Union Army. He majored in mathematics and physics, graduating in 1947, with honors. Hill then attended the University of Michigan where he studied actuarial science and earned his masters in business administration in 1949. According to African-American Business Leaders, “Hill got his degree and headed for Atlanta, a city he heard a lot about from his mother and the chairman of the mathematics department at Lincoln. The story they kept repeating to him was about an ex-slave named Alonzo Herndon and how he started this big insurance company.”
At a Glance…
Born Jesse Hill, Jr., 1927 in St. Louis, Missouri; son of Nancy Dennis Martin, an employee of Pullman and Jesse Hill, Sr.; married Juanita Azira Gonzalez, 1955; Children: two daughters, Nancy and Azira; Education: Lincoln University, B.S. 1947; University of Michigan, M.B.A., 1949.
Atlanta Life Insurance Company, 1949-95, during which time he started as an actuary, became vice-president and chief actuary, then in 1973 was appointed president and chief executive officer. Concessions International, 1979-present, owner. Military Service: U. S. Army Korean War veteran, 1952-54.
Awards: Honorary Doctorates from Morris Brown College, 1972; Clark College, 1974; Chung-Ang University, 1976; University of Michigan, 1994, National Urban League EOE Award, 1965; Most Distinguished Alumni Award, 1970, Lincoln University; Abe Goldstein Award, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 1973.
Hill initially stayed at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Atlanta. His first job, and the only place he was ever employed, was as an actuary for the life insurance company started by Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta Life Insurance Company. He soon began to do volunteer work at the YMCA where he was living. Hill wasted no time in becoming involved in other activities in the city. As reported in African-American Business Leaders, Hill was soon “a member of the Community Chest, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Urban League. He was also an active campaign worker for the Atlanta Negro Voters League.” Donald Hollowell, former director of the EEOC for the Atlanta region, described Hill in Atlanta Magazine as “a human dynamo, with intense interest in the welfare of the city generally and the black community specifically.”
Hill had to interrupt his work with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and the community while he served two years in the army during the Korean War. He was decorated for his actions during the conflict. In 1954 Hill returned to Atlanta. A year later he married Juanita Azira Gonzales, a native of Cuba and a registered nurse. Hill soon became one of the leading voices in Atlanta for various civil rights activities.
Hill’s initial foray into community activism was for voting rights. He served as the chair for the All-Citizens Registration Committee whose goal was to register more than 50,000 black voters previously not registered to vote. He also participated in a group dedicated to ending school segregation in Atlanta. In 1964, according to Atlanta Magazine, “Hill won a place in the hearts of poor blacks when he threatened massive demonstrations” after a school in a run down area of the city was scheduled for demolition. The students of that school would have been moved to portable classrooms next to an already existing school, but the school board eventually gave up their ground and built a brand new school in the neighborhood for the students.
Hill was also instrumental in desegregating the University of Georgia’s law school and ridding the Georgia university system of Jim Crow laws, which prohibited minority students from being accepted. Moreover, Hill was one of the few black business leaders who assisted the students of Atlanta University when they began holding sit-ins and protests in area stores and restaurants. Because neither the white nor the black newspapers in Atlanta supported the students, Hill started his own newspaper, the Atlanta Inquirer.This paper soon became the place where the more radical of the city could vent their feelings. He continued as president of the newspaper’s publishing committee for many years.
Because of his active stance in community issues, Hill found himself in the spotlight when social change began to take place in the city. By the early 1970s Hill was serving on the board of directors of Rich’s, a local department store; he had also been named to the state board of regents by then Governor Jimmy Carter. In 1973 Hill was named president of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. When Carter was elected president of the United States, Hill was named chair of the Minority Business Resource Center, a group commissioned by Congress to assure minority contractors received their fair share of government contracts to repair the nation’s rail system. In 1977 Hill became the first black man to serve as president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
Former Georgia state representative Ben Brown commended Hill in Atlanta Magazine asserting, “He’s an idea man, he has the ability and the powers of persuasion to make things happen. He is responsible for a lot of things in this town that other people have gotten credit for. Sure he has enemies, but no one questions his integrity.”
As president of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, Hill watched the company grow into the largest black-owned life insurance company in the country, as well as one of the most stable. This happened during a time when many black-owned insurance companies were being taken over. Because he believed that the company should remain in the neighborhood in which it was founded, Hill built a $10 million building to serve as the company’s national headquarters there in 1980.
The leadership Hill has sowed in the community is also apparent in the office. According to the Atlanta Con-stitution and Journal, “He switches on about 5:30 in the morning and works well into the night, a telephone his constant companion.” Julian Bond, in the same article, declared that “legend has it Jesse was so smart, he’d go down to Atlanta Life at 6 in the morning, get his work done by 9 a.m. and then spend the rest of the day organizing.” When he retired from Atlanta Life in 1995, Hill had been only the third president of the company in its 85-year history. He then established a family concession business with friends, which operates in several major airports, including Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport.
Ingham, John N. and Lynne B. Feldman, African-American Business Leaders, Greenwood Press, 1994.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, December 3,1989, p. Rl; April 9, 1995, p. Rl.
Atlanta Magazine, January 1971, pp. 26-32.
Black Enterprise, September 1996, p. 20.
Business Atlanta, March 1991, p. 10.
Emerge, July/August 1995, p. 18.
Haggerty, Mike and Wallace Rasmussen, “The Headline vs. The Bottom Line,” Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1994; http://www.fac.org/publicat/headline/TOC.HTM.
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