Jesse Hill, one of Atlanta’s most prominent African American civil rights leaders, was the president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company from 1973 to 1992. The first African American to be elected president of a chamber of commerce in a major city and a member of the board of directors for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Hill was active in the civic and business communities of the city for more than five decades.
Jesse Hill Jr. was born in 1927 in St. Louis, Missouri, to Nancy Dennis Martin and Jesse Hill. He attended public schools in St. Louis and graduated in 1947 from Lincoln University in St. Louis with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics. He received his MBA from the University of Michigan in 1949, and from 1952 to 1954 he served in the Korean War. In 1955 Hill married Azira Gonzalez, and the couple had two daughters, Nancy Mercedes and Azira Dominga.
From the beginning, Hill’s professional and civil rights activities were closely intertwined. His career in business began in 1949 when he moved to Atlanta, the center of African American entrepreneurship in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. He joined the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, one of the country’s largest and most successful Black-owned businesses, as assistant actuary; he was only the second African American actuary in the country. When he first moved to the city, Hill lived at the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, the headquarters of the city’s Black leadership during the period. He also volunteered for both the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During his first two decades with Atlanta Life, Hill became vice president and the chief actuary of the company. 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’s founder. During Hill’s tenure as chief executive, Atlanta Life experienced its most impressive period of growth since its founding, and its total assets, revenues, profits, and shareholder value all surpassed previous levels.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Hill used his position as a leader in Atlanta’s Black business community to promote civil rights in Georgia and Alabama. 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 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. Holmes and Hunter were ultimately the first two African American students admitted to UGA.
Hill’s company was also involved in progressive activities to help the Black community across the South. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hill raised money from employees at Atlanta Life and donated the money to Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to promote civil rights. Hill also encouraged employees to donate their time in support of the civil rights cause. Atlanta Life’s Montgomery office even employed Rosa Parks as a secretary during the Montgomery bus boycott, which she sparked.
Hill and Atlanta Life Insurance Company also receive credit for increasing African American access to affordable home-mortgage financing in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Florida. Furthermore, Hill organized successful voter registration drives in Atlanta throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. His organizational efforts helped register approximately 50,000 new African American voters in Atlanta.
From 1973 until 1984 Hill served as the first African American on the Georgia Board of Regents. In 1977 Hill became the chairman of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, where he continued to work on bridge building between the African American and white communities. Hill ran political campaigns for Maynard Jackson, who became the first Black mayor of Atlanta, as well as for congressman and later United Nations ambassador Andrew Young.
Hill retired from Atlanta Life in 1995. 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. In 2001 Butler Street in Atlanta was renamed in Hill’s honor. In 2003 he cochaired a committee to rename the Hartsfield International Airport in honor of Maynard Jackson, and in 2007 he received Atlanta Gas Light Company’s Shining Light Award.
Throughout a long, successful business career, Hill also served on the boards of directors for eight major U.S. corporations, including Knight Ridder, Delta Air Lines, National Services Industries, and SunTrust, and was a founding director of MARTA, Atlanta’s public transportation system. He also served as the chairman of the board of directors for the King Center in Atlanta.