Baby boomers, both black and white, male and female, have led the way in integrating the American workplace, government, academia, and all spheres of society over the last 50 plus years. Sometimes, the pioneers were met with hostility and condescension, sometimes they were simply ignored; still, they persisted, and paved the way for the richer, more diverse world of today. BoomAthens looks forward to sharing the stories of local people who made a difference by stepping forward to be the first woman, black, or openly gay person in a given occupation or profession. We invite you to share your experiences with us in what will be a continuing series.
First African American on Athens City Council (1970 – 1988)
Ed Turner’s parents were skeptical of his ideas and goals for black empowerment but he was in his early 20s at the beginning of the 1960s, and he was captivated by “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, startling accounts of black life in America. “Those books had so much reality about black survival,” Turner said.
Racial violence had continued in full force in the American south during the ’60s, with church bombings, murders of civil rights workers, and assassinations of leaders. Even a black U.S. Army Reserve officer passing through Athens wasn’t safe in 1964; Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn was shot to death through his car window by local Ku Klux Klansmen. Anyone taking a high profile role in the march toward black equality understood the risks involved.
In the mid ’60s, Turner recently had returned to Athens to enroll at UGA following study at historically black Savannah State College. And while his parents were “having a hard time with these new ideas,” of black empowerment, he says local blacks were eager to register to vote. “Organized voter registration was a big deal in Athens,” he recalled. “Local people had heard about it but never experienced it.”
With all the excitement generated by the registration drives in the mid- to late-60s, a local search committee began looking for someone in the black community to run for Athens City Council. While two black men had previously run for office, they had lost. During this time, 10 middle-aged white men represented Athens’ five wards. The political environment was such that local newspaper editorials bemoaned how the south was being picked on, that discrimination was just as bad up north. And that if black schools were inferior, it wasn’t because of segregation, it was because of inferior teachers.
In 1969, Ward 1, where Turner lived, actually had more registered white voters than black voters because of the location of Chicopee Mills and mill housing. So the issues in the ward affected both races — basic services were lacking. Many roads were unpaved and the main access to the area known as “over the river,” was a one-lane metal bridge. “It was considered a ghetto all over the ward.” So the upstart young black man challenging the establishment energized the voters.
“We had no money but lots of volunteers. All of northeast Georgia had their eyes on me,” he said, smiling.
The challenge paid off – Turner was elected in a runoff, 641-571 defeating two white men, including the incumbent. Interestingly, in reviewing newspapers of the time, despite being a historic election, there were no photos of Turner. Only some white winners were shown, and the contests in the first and third wards were described as black vs. white.
Immediately, the same racial dynamic played out on the council: “I was stone-walled. I couldn’t get a motion seconded,” Turner notes.
The longstanding issues persisted: “We needed services for the entire city, not just select neighborhoods,” Turner said, so “we raised hell. We wanted to expose the process.”
After being elected president of the local chapter of the NAACP, Turner found media coverage easy to get, holding press conferences in front of city hall, which eventually attracted TV stations from Atlanta.
Two years later a second black man was elected, and the wheels of local government began to turn in a more equitable direction. Reflecting on those early years, Turner said, “I’m proud I had a community that stood behind me. Being first isn’t worth a hill of beans unless others can come behind you and build on the foundation. Power yields nothing without a demand; we never compromised without making a demand.”
Turner went on to serve a total of nine terms. In his wake, more African Americans were elected to the city council and later to the unified government. Miriam Moore, a domestic worker in a sorority house, would become the first black woman elected to the council in 1988.
To read an in-depth article about the impact of urban renewal on the east Athens neighborhood that Ed Turner represented, go to the February 25, 2015 edition, article entitled “Southern Apartheid and Urban Renewal in East Athens” of Flagpole.
Photographer, Harry W. Hayes received a masters degree in city planning from Georgia Tech. He has been a senior public service associate for the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at UGA and has provided photographic and post processing services through Hidden Hills Studio since January 2008.
First woman on Athens City Council (1980 – 1985)
and Current Athens-Clarke County mayor
“Honey, you’re cute enough – think you can handle the job?” It was 1979, and mother of four Nancy Denson was going door to door in her Forest Heights neighborhood, challenging the incumbent for a seat on city council from Ward 5. With no money and no experience in her first campaign for public office, Denson, the current mayor of Athens-Clarke County shot back, “Last time I checked, the council dealt with weighty issues, not heavy objects.”
Denson had become active in her neighborhood association in the mid-1970s when undeveloped areas adjacent to her Forest Heights subdivision off Oglethorpe Avenue were becoming the target of what she and other residents regarded as inappropriate zoning proposals. A funeral home, apartments, and an office complex were some of the developments perceived as threats to housing values and quality of life. Denson recalled being very intimidated when she first stood up at an association meeting. Raising young children and running a part-time accounting and alterations business from her home hadn’t prepared her for speaking in front of an audience.
“A doctor wanted to build medical offices but he wanted general zoning as a back-up in case he had to put other types of businesses in there – that was the last straw,” Denson said. By 1979, she was president of the neighborhood association when the board invited staff from the planning office to a meeting at her house. It got pretty heated. “Some were attacking the staff, so I said ‘you don’t treat people like that in my home.'”
That’s when somebody turned to her and said “Why don’t you run?” While she had never thought of elective office before, she decided she might never get asked to do something like that again. Her husband, Bob, was dismayed but changed his mind when she joked “Well, I could have another baby.” In reality, “Bob thought I could do anything – he was very proud of me.”
Denson was 39 when she “put on comfortable shoes and started going door to door. I didn’t have any cards or anything,” until a neighbor gave her her first campaign check. Denson won the election 696-331. Her opponent, four-term incumbent Bryan Craft, was quoted in the newspaper as saying he had an inkling things might not go his way when he saw the large number of young people and women voters he had not previously seen at the polls.
From the beginning, some of the men on council were “jokey to break the ice.” When they asked whether they should call her councilwoman or councilman, Denson responded “It doesn’t matter what you call me as long as my vote counts.”
Former Councilman Jerry Nicholson told her all the men rented just one room when they went to state municipal association meetings and wondered what they would do with her. “I told Jerry I’d just get a sleeping bag with a locking zipper and bunk with them.”
There were times, though, that she had to hold her tongue. When the outgoing mayor introduced her to the incoming mayor, he said “Well, I guess we had to eventually get one, but she’s a good one.”
It wasn’t all lighthearted, however, because some of the councilmen expected her to go along with their decisions, assuring her “we’ve been doing this a long time; we know what we’re doing.” She didn’t always agree.
Denson was on the finance committee when discussion centered around moving federal funds from a public daycare center to infrastructure use. After a break, the other two members told her what they wanted to do with the money, which wasn’t to fund daycare. “I said ‘I’m sorry but that’s not what I want to do,'” she remembers, and she was able to prevail with the full council.
During her first term, there were several controversial issues, including a longstanding, unofficial custom of allowing some organizations to get free water. The subject arose when the state Botanical Garden requested free water during an extended drought. When the council didn’t want to allow it, Denson asked if there was a policy. When she was told there wasn’t, she requested the finance committee look into developing one. She angered some.
“One of the councilmen put his finger in my face and said, ‘You’re going to cost us our football tickets,'” Denson recalls. Sanford Stadium had been getting unmetered water as had several organizations such as the Boys and Girls club and the YMCA. Denson replied, “If I do, it’s a bribe and it’s not legal anyway.” Ultimately, a policy was developed that prohibited “free” water … and no one lost their football tickets.
Another controversy also involved the university; at the time, a contingent of students had been complaining repeatedly at council meetings that the school was burning nuclear waste. In an attempt to settle the issue, Denson and another councilman insisted the city should explore the allegations. “You’d have thought we’d declared war on the university.” Letters from influential faculty and newspaper editorials castigated the two. In the end, an independent study showed the minor release of radiation emitted from one of the science labs was no more than what was naturally occurring in the atmosphere. Still, Denson did not regret pursuing the issue. To one powerful man during the firestorm, she copied and sent a page from the city charter that said, “the council is responsible for the health and welfare of the citizens of Athens.”
She said she downplayed being the first woman on council because she wanted voters to see her as a person of integrity and “someone who would respond to their needs. I didn’t think about it at the time or for some years, but it was bound to have had some effect because we bring a different perspective.”
Denson was elected three times to council but resigned in 1985 in the middle of her third term to run for and win the office of tax commissioner. She is now in her second term as mayor of Athens-Clarke County, and was recently voted one of the 100 Most Influential People in Georgia by Georgia Trend magazine.
First Athens-Clarke County CEO
1990 – 1998
Like Nancy Denson, Gwen O’Looney first became involved in city government when her neighborhood was threatened. She had returned to Athens in 1980 after graduating from UGA in 1969. During the 1970s, she worked in a variety of nonprofit, human services organizations in Atlanta and New York, and it was the lure of a similar position that brought her to Athens to interview with John O’Looney at the UGA Institute of Government.
She got the job and in 1982, they married and bought what her mother called “the worst house in the worst neighborhood in Athens.” It was a run-down Victorian house in the Cobbham area, near Prince and Milledge avenues. When Denson decided to run for tax commissioner in 1985, her ward 5 council seat, which included Cobbham, was up for grabs.
“I was concerned — getting the right person to replace her was crucial to saving the neighborhood,” O’Looney recalls in an oral history recorded for the UGA Russell Library by this reporter. The neighborhood had worked with Denson and the other ward’s councilman to slow encroachment from the hospital, public housing, churches, and commercial development.
“I didn’t want to run and was appalled when some prominent people approached me,” she says. “I had only been in the neighborhood less than a year, and they had the connections and money.” So she began calling other people she thought would represent the neighborhood’s concerns but no one wanted to put in the time or be in the spotlight. Finally, she felt she had to run, prevailing over a Republican woman from the very active Forest Heights neighborhood.
Describing Athens in the mid-1980s, O’Looney says it was very typical of other small towns in the South, controlled by a few well-connected property and business owners.
“Downtown was not valued and they wanted to build the widest, straightest roads possible,” she remembered. University faculty didn’t feel any ownership of the city or anything that happened “across Broad” Street.
In her first term on council, she pushed for a controversial historic preservation ordinance, which passed much to the mayor’s dismay. Cobbham became the first of 12 locally designated districts.
Alcohol sales after midnight was another contentious issue. Students were driving over to Atlanta bars, which stayed open until 4 a.m. Viewing the issue as simply a practical matter, she aggressively supported allowing bars to stay open until 2 a.m. Some called her “the devil’s handmaiden,” and one downtown church enlisted a member to run against her in the 1988 election.
O’Looney was encouraged to run for mayor that year but instead stayed on the council, though she took note that two anti-establishment men won one-third of the vote in the mayor’s race. “I knew there was a growing contingent of people willing to support something different from what we had,” she recalls.
A surprising win over five men to head the new government
Unification of the City of Athens and Clarke County governments had failed three times, but by 1990 many who had once opposed it had changed their minds. An aging infrastructure, policing needs, development pressures, a strong-mayor system that was no longer effective and myriad other issues convinced a majority that the problems could not be solved separately in the smallest county in the state.
After unification passed in August 1990, five men threw their hats in the ring for the November election to pick a chief executive officer who would preside over a 10-member commission. Once again, O’Looney hoped a candidate would come forward that she could support since she was considering getting out of government altogether. When no one did and citizens were asking her to run, she called one of the local kingmakers for advice.
“We had a meeting and decided Athens isn’t ready for a black or a woman,” he Looney says he drawled. O’Looney replied, “I bet there wasn’t a black or a woman in the room,” and immediately decided to run.
A colorful dresser anyway, she stood out in the field of five men at any of the election-related events and forums. “I immediately saw I had an advantage because all of the women who had served on city council had good reputations for working hard and serving the citizens,” she remembers.
Her support came from a broad cross-section, including the longtime mayor of Winterville, Wesley Whitehead, who, when asked by the paper what he thought after a debate in his community, said, “I think I like the woman.” Michael Stipe, founder of the band R.E.M. provided a third of her campaign funding. She led the field with 40 percent of the vote and prevailed in a runoff the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.
“I went right down to city hall the next day — we were so behind and the two governments would be officially unified in January!”
Jumping into the mire
The new charter required all conflicting ordinances be reconciled within the first year, over 600 in all. O’Looney appointed 10 committees of staff and elected officials to begin the work. Meetings would often last until 2 or 3 in the morning, so she’d sleep on the floor of her office if she had an early morning appointment.
Despite her hard work, she was often ignored by the male staff, consultants, and regional planners. “I’d say something and they’d ignore me; then a little while later a man would make the same suggestion and it would be a good idea,” she recalls. When she went to meet the Oglethorpe County chairman, he kept his back to her, all the while eating peanuts and throwing the shells into a pot-bellied stove.
Councilwoman Moore told O’Looney she was having such difficulty because she was a woman. O’Looney didn’t want to believe it but finally, “One particularly frustrating night I went to her house and when she opened the door, I stood there and said, ‘You’re right! It’s because I’m a woman.'”
O’Looney’s first four-year term was consumed with complex consolidation issues and outcomes that angered some. Still, she decided to run again because she felt she’d done a good job, and now that she had the engine running, “I knew it would take another term to get some things done.”
Winning by only a slim 2 percent margin, she nevertheless became the first head of a newly unified government to be re-elected anywhere in the country. There had been enormous change, and more was to come — right before the election, Athens learned it was to be the largest venue outside Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics.
To hear her entire four-hour oral history recorded in two sessions at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, go to AOHP-004 Gwen O’Looney and AOHP-005 Gwen O’Looney. The excerpt in which O’Looney specifically discusses her experiences as first female CEO of Athens-Clarke County is at approximately 1:40 minute into part AOHP-004.
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