Jessie Hill, Jr. 'MBA '49
Building Coalitions to Break Barriers: Jesse Hill Jr., MBA '49
Dean's Special Series for Black History Month
Jesse Hill grew up in St. Louis with business in his blood. His grandfather owned the Dennis Moving & Furniture Company, and from his horse-drawn wagon sold coal and wood in the winter, ice and watermelons in the summer, and opened a small used furnishing shop that he stocked with the cast-offs of the families he moved. "I started working at age 12 doing recycling, which was my grandfather¿s influence. Other people¿s junk was his merchandise for recycling or reusing," Hill says. "I recruited and hired boys, 10 to 12, showed them how to collect and went into business."
Hill¿s interest in math took him to Lincoln University in St. Louis, where he received his B.S. in math and physics in 1947. "It was a state school with an outstanding academic record and was the most economical way to get an education," he explains. "I wanted to mix math and business and the only way to do that was to be an actuary. In 1947 there was only one school in the United States with an actuarial sciences program, so I applied and entered the University of Michigan Business School."
As a brand new MBA in 1949, Jesse Hill packed his bags, boarded a train and headed straight to Atlanta. "In Black America, Atlanta is a special mecca for business and education," he explains. "There were pioneering businesses in life insurance and banking, and some of those pioneers were based in Atlanta. I knew several people there through contacts, and in summer school worked in one of the dining halls and became friends with some other people from Atlanta.
¿One contact was a senior officer at the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, and I was only the second Black actuary in the country." And so he began his long and outstanding career as an actuarial assistant in 1949. Ultimately he went on to become an actuary, then vice president and chief actuary, and in 1973 was named the company¿s third president and CEO¿the first non-family member to head the company.
"The Atlanta Life Insurance Company was founded by a former slave, A. F. Herndon, who was succeeded by Norris Herndon, who controlled about 80 percent of the company stock. I handled a lot of behind-the-scenes assignments," Hill says. "One day Mr. Herndon decided he would become chairman only and wanted me to be elected president. The company was the largest Black American enterprise in terms of net worth and gave assistance to a lot of other businesses."
Hill ultimately became chairman, a role he relinquished in 1992, and then retired from the company in 1995. But that¿s only a small part of the Jesse Hill story. "My mother was a member of the Urban League and the NAACP," he says, "and when I got to Atlanta I went straight to both offices and volunteered. I also lived at the Butler Street YMCA, which was the headquarters for the Black leadership in Atlanta and even housed the first Black police precinct."
Hill became chairman of the voter registration movement in Atlanta throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, and had a strong role in registering more than 50,000 new voters. "Rosa Parks was an office worker for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in Montgomery when she touched off the bus boycott," he says, "and one of the boycott leaders was a staff manager for the company. The Atlanta Life Insurance Company was the backbone of support for the civil rights movement in Atlanta and Montgomery."
Jesse Hill¿s work with voter registration ultimately led to his running all the campaigns of Maynard Jackson, who became mayor of Atlanta, and Andrew Young, who was elected to Congress and then named ambassador to the United Nations. During his career he also served on the boards of several companies, including Knight-Ridder, Delta Airlines and National Services Industries. He also was the founding director of MARTA, Atlanta¿s transportation system, and served on the board of directors for the 1996 Olympics.
"We didn¿t have as much confrontation as you might expect in the older days of the civil rights movement," Hill says. "Many changes I was honored to be at the nerve center of were brought about by bridge building. We strategically moved barriers by building coalitions. There were occasions where we had to protest and threaten boycotts, but I had the pleasure of having many barriers removed by bridge building."
By Fred Wessells
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