The first African American woman elected to the Georgia General Assembly, Grace Towns Hamilton was also the first female of her race in the Deep South to hold a public office of such consequence. She was among eight African Americans sent to the state legislature in a special election in June 1965; they were the first to enter the lower house since the end of Reconstruction. Hamilton represented her district in mid-Atlanta continuously for the next eighteen years, becoming known to her peers as “the most effective woman legislator the state has ever had.”
Hamilton, born in Atlanta on February 10, 1907, was the oldest of the four surviving children of Harriet McNair and George Alexander Towns. She grew up in the sheltered environs of Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University), an integrated institution, where her father was a professor of English and pedagogy. Taught from her earliest years that she had a duty to serve her race, she was educated from grade school through college at Atlanta University, where she received an undergraduate degree in 1927. At Ohio State University, which awarded her a master’s degree in psychology in 1929, she earned her expenses by working in Columbus for the Young Women’s Christian Association.
Returning to Atlanta, she taught psychology at Clark College and the Atlanta School of Social Work. In 1930 she married Atlanta native Henry Cooke Hamilton, the son of prominent builder Alexander D. Hamilton. The couple spent the next decade in Memphis, Tennessee, where Hamilton gave birth in 1931 to their first and only child, Eleanor. In Memphis Hamilton taught psychology at LeMoyne College, where her husband also taught; surveyed Black workers for the Works Progress Administration; and developed interracial programs on numerous college campuses for the YWCA. In 1941 her husband became head of Atlanta University’s high school program, and she returned with him to Atlanta, where the couple spent the rest of their lives.
In 1943 Hamilton was appointed executive director of the Atlanta Urban League (AUL), becoming one of the earliest women to hold such a post. Under her leadership the AUL chose not to follow the National Urban League’s emphasis on employment but instead waged intensive campaigns within the confines of segregation for advances in schooling, health care, housing, and voting rights for African Americans. Sidestepping the issue of segregation eventually brought her into conflict with the NUL, which established tighter controls over its locals. In 1961 she lost her AUL post.
An interim of private consulting preceded her subsequent—and best-known—career in the Georgia legislature, where Hamilton worked tirelessly between 1965 and 1985 to expand political representation for Black Americans in city, county, and state governments. She was a principal architect of the 1973 Atlanta City Charter, which replaced a century-old predecessor and brought African Americans onto the Atlanta City Council for the first time in a number commensurate with their proportion of the population. She was a leader in congressional and legislative reapportionment battles. In 1972 Andrew Young became the first African American to represent Atlanta’s Fifth District in Congress after white legislators had repeatedly manipulated district lines to thwart him at the polls, and he credited Hamilton with making his election possible. Following the 1980 census the Fifth District figured in another reapportionment battle, this one more brutal than the last. Hamilton took the side of the white leadership against militant young African Americans who wanted Atlanta redistricted to the advantage of Black residents. Her opposition to a seat made to order for an African American exacerbated her conflicts with her opponents. Hamilton was defeated in her bid for reelection to her legislative post in September 1984 by Mable Thomas, a woman one-third her age.
Hamilton held only one other public post, as advisor to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from January 1985 to January 1987. She died June 17, 1992.
In 2006 Hamilton was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.