Social Work faculty leads effort to establish Georgia historical marker

Associate Professor Tony Lowe

Associate Professor Tony Lowe

An application for a historical marker may have brought Tony Lowe to Meriwether County, but it was the conversations with the people in the community that ultimately led him to make a deeper investment in the project’s success.

Working with Odessadale Preservation Committee (OPC), Lowe, an associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Social Work, provided the necessary insights and counsel to support the efforts of a passionate group of citizens around a marker recognizing the first African-American mayor in Georgia.

Lowe, who had previously helped the city of Hogansville dedicate a marker about Isaiah H. Lofton, understood the process of applications and registrations to get a site awarded. He was already working with the OPC for an application for the Odessadale Elementary School, a Black schoolhouse built around 1909 that was dedicated to Black self-help and education during the times of state-sanctioned racial segregation.

One conversation with Virginia Hill, daughter of the late Richmond Hill, led to a change in plans.

“While we were working on the school project, we were having little side discussions,” Lowe said. “She (Virginia Hill) told me the story that her father was the first African American mayor in Georgia. I grew up in Hogansville, Georgia, which is 15 miles away. I was baffled that I didn’t know this, and this happened in my own backyard.”

The anecdote was enough for Lowe to double his workload. The groups began work on two applications for historical markers – one for the schoolhouse and another for the election of Richmond Hill. Through research, Lowe learned more about Hill’s story.

Hill’s history

Born in Harris County in 1905, Hill was an insurance agent and entrepreneur, founding Hill’s Funeral Home Inc. in 1945. He was a charter member of the Meriwether Chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Rust Chapel United Methodist Church. Lowe found that Hill had been elected to the Greenville City Council in 1968 – the city’s first African American elected to that particular office – before he was elected mayor in 1973.

Lowe explained that Hill’s legacy has been understandably overlooked due to the election of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor. While Both Hill and Jackson were elected in the same year, Jackson’s election went into a runoff election, while Hill won his election for mayor outright and, as a result, was the first elected Black mayor in Georgia.

“The fact that Maynard won it in Georgia, in Atlanta, the national attention, the national media sucked all of the air out of the room on Mayor Jackson, and Richmond Hill became a footnote to history itself,” Lowe said. “He was forgotten as the Maynard Jackson story was covered widely in The New York Times and all over the country. (Hill’s) story was kind of swept under the rug. That revelation was interesting for me.”

Hill’s and Jackson’s elections were a turning point in the state, which spurred from another moment in Civil Rights history – Rev. Primus King’s successful lawsuit in 1945 that challenged all-white primaries in Columbus is widely recognized among leading scholars as initiating the modern Civil Rights movement, explained Lowe.

Virginia noted the only thing that mattered to her father was serving the citizens of Meriwether County.

“I don’t think it made much difference with my father – he knew that he got in there first – but he accepted it,” Virginia Hill said. “He figured he was mayor of this little town of Greenville, Georgia, that was his main concern, not necessarily being the first African-American for the state of Georgia.”

And he did put in work for his constituents. Lowe noted that Hill challenged the notion of “the other side of the tracks” and worked to provide asphalt roads and plumbing to all parts of the community, particularly those in Black areas without access. He also worked with the state’s senators in Washington D.C. to bring a $1 million funding package to Greenville.

At first, both marker applications were rejected. The Georgia Historical Society (GHS) left feedback for Lowe and the committee about the Richmond Hill project and wanted it submitted again. The edits were made, and the application was accepted for the Richmond Hill project, while the Odessadale project received a marker from a private donor unrelated to the GHS.

“Being an academic, you are looking for the right project, the right story itself,” Lowe said. “I knew his story was the right story. I knew his story would be far more attractive to the Georgia Historical Society, and it proved to be true.”

Marking the mayor

Today, the marker stands at Greenville City Hall, funded by the GHS and the Meriwether Chamber of Commerce. It became one of the more than 50 markers in the Georgia Historical Society’s Civil Rights Trail, a collection that focuses broadly on the economic, social, political and cultural history of the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia.

On March 25, a ceremony was held to dedicate the marker. What started as a stormy morning gave way to a sunny ceremony, which included speakers from the city, OPC, family and friends. Individuals representing the various groups with which Hill was affiliated were in attendance, including the NAACP, his church and even members of the Georgia Funeral Service Practitioners Association, an organization the late Hill served as president at one time.

“It was a soul-stirring day, event and occasion all wrapped up into one,” Virginia Hill said. “It floored me that (Lowe) would step up and take it this far. I was very grateful for what he did. Words can’t really describe it – it was just a very high moment for me and I hope for Greenville, too.”

Social work in action

For Lowe, this project was a way to represent UGA as a consultant to local communities.

“This project for me is about marrying the relationship between the University, research and public service,” Lowe said. “This is the public service piece of what we do. We argue the University sits on three pillars – teaching, research and service. This project speaks in a lot of ways to all of those.

“From a teaching standpoint, it gives me an additional body of information to teach from as I look at social justice issues, social policy issues, what have you. From a research standpoint, researching the needs, publishing articles about it. From a service standpoint, as you engage with local communities and engage in civic advocacy itself – that’s what it is, social advocacy. This is really the University engaging communities and being of service to communities, and I believe that is an important piece.”

Virginia, who took over the funeral home, sees the marker as a tribute to her father.

“It’s just humbling to look over to where it is located next to city hall and see where others will come looking,” she said. “For him to be a part of the Civil Rights trail in the State of Georgia – that’s great. It’s very, very humbling.”

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