Tilly, Dorothy (1883–1970)

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Tilly, Dorothy (1883–1970)

American civil-rights activist. Born Dorothy Eugenia Rogers on June 30, 1883, in Hampton, Georgia; died of respiratory arrest on March 16, 1970, in Atlanta, Georgia; daughter of Richard Wade Rogers (a Methodist minister) and Frances (Eubank) Rogers; graduated with honors from Reinhardt College, 1899; Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, A.B., 1901; married Milton Eben Tilly (a chemical distributor), on November 24, 1903 (died 1961); children: Eben Fletcher (b. 1904).

Served as secretary of children's work, Women's Missionary Society (1910s–20s); was director of summer leadership school at Paine College (1929); became member of executive committee, Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (c. 1931); elected president of Georgia chapter of Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (1936); appointed member of Presidential Committee on Civil Rights (1945); served as director of women's work for Southern Regional Council (late 1940s); founded Fellowship of the Concerned (1949); was a delegate to Israel, American Christian Palestine Committee (1949).

During the 1920s, at his insistence, Georgiaborn Dorothy Tilly accompanied her husband Milton Tilly on morning drives through the slums of Atlanta. In a wealthy section behind the posh Piedmont Hotel, she saw impoverished black children retrieving food from garbage cans. Shocked, she protested any further visits. Milton challenged her to let others know what she had witnessed, and promised financial assistance should she choose to work to alleviate the conditions of Southern African-Americans. This was the beginning of Dorothy Tilly's tireless crusade to eliminate poverty and racism. Outspoken on the moral dimensions of segregation, she would go on to publicly proclaim the need for integration in the South, including in the nation's capital.

Dorothy was born in Hampton, Georgia, on June 30, 1883, the fourth of eleven children, eight of whom survived infancy. Her father Richard Wade Rogers was a Methodist minister who would later serve as president of Reinhardt Junior College in Waleska, Georgia, and her mother Frances Eubank Rogers had graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon; both were descendants of early English settlers to Virginia. Her parents instilled in her a concern for social issues, and from an early age she was encouraged to value learning and to show compassion for others. Tilly graduated with honors from Reinhardt College in 1899, and received an A.B. from her mother's alma mater, Wesleyan College, in 1901. (She later served on the board of trustees of Wesleyan.) She married Milton Eben Tilly, a chemical distributor from Atlanta, in November 1903, and gave birth to their only son the following year.

Beginning in the 1910s, Tilly became active in the Women's Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North Georgia Conference, serving as secretary of children's work. After those car rides with her husband gave her energies new direction, in the late 1920s she directed the summer leadership school at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, a program to train black Methodist women as community leaders. Early in the 1930s, Tilly joined the recently established Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL). As secretary of the group's Georgia chapter, she worked with Jessie Daniel Ames , the ASWPL's founder, investigating and documenting lynchings in Georgia and trying to improve conditions for Southern blacks. She also became a member of the national executive committee of the ASWPL. Tilly joined the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (later the Southern Regional Council), serving as a field worker and director of the women's branch of the organization during the 1940s. At the same time, she also served as secretary of Christian social relations for the Women's Society of Christian Service in the southeast. Her work brought her national recognition, and in 1945 Harry S. Truman appointed her to the President's Committee on Civil Rights. One of only two Southerners on the committee and the only white woman, she counseled the other members not to view the South as the only region in which racial prejudice festered, but to learn to recognize its existence in all sections of the United States. She also campaigned against the Ku Klux Klan; in part because of her lobbying, the legislatures of Georgia and South Carolina passed antimask laws.

In September 1949, with the support of the Southern Regional Council, Tilly founded the Fellowship of the Concerned, an interracial and interfaith group, to carry forth the mission of the ASWPL, which had disbanded in 1942. An informal coalition of members from churches and synagogues from 12 southern states, the fellowship advocated for fair treatment of blacks in the courts. Tilly was convinced that defendants' civil rights would be less likely to be violated if prominent women attended trials, and urged group members to do so and report on what they had seen. As well, fellowship members accompanied registered black women voters to polling booths and campaigned to educate law enforcement officials on how to avert race riots and lynchings. Tilly also raised funds for the organization, which had more than 4,000 members by 1950. Among the projects the group sponsored were workshops to promote support for integrated schools, anticipating the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Tilly was an advocate of peace as well as justice. Having served in 1936 as president of the Georgia chapter of the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (founded by Carrie Chapman Catt ), she also supported formation of the League of Nations after World War II. Among the other groups to which she lent her energies were the Emergency Committee for Food Production (during the war), Americans for Democratic Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Christian Palestine Committee. In conjunction with the latter group, she had traveled to Israel in 1949 to study conditions in Jerusalem. Despite harassment by segregationist groups—in the 1950s a Ku Klux Klan plot to bomb her Atlanta home was uncovered—Tilly maintained her faith and her vision, continuing to work for peace, justice, and good race relations. Her response to threatening calls was to play a recording of the Lord's Prayer over the phone. Frail and confined to a wheelchair, she attended meetings and spoke for civil rights well into the 1960s, as the civil-rights movement took hold throughout the country. Tilly lived long enough to mourn the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., dying of respiratory arrest in a nursing home in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 16, 1970.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.

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Tilly, Dorothy (1883–1970)

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