After retiring from public office years ago, former Decatur mayor Elizabeth Wilson said she has more free time on her hands.
Despite staying active in the Beacon Hill community, Wilson said she hasn’t spent much of that free time thinking about the impact she’s made in the community she served for so many years.
Wilson helped desegregate the county’s public library system in 1962. She was one of the first Black individuals to get a library card at the Decatur library. Later, Wilson would become the first woman and Black person to become the city’s mayor.
Wilson was perceived by many as a natural leader, even though she said she never thought of herself as one.
“You know how people think of you as something different than what you actually are? Growing up, I did not see myself being a leader. I think I’m a very good follower, but other people always pushed me or asked me to do this,” Wilson said. “Most of the time I was like ‘OK’ and that seemed to continue on in my life.”
Even running for public office was somewhat of an accident, Wilson said. In 1984 Wilson, along with a group of Decatur residents and her best friend Joy Jackson, met with the president of Decatur Federal Bank and decided it was time Decatur had a Black person represented on the council.
In the meeting, Wilson said she intended to nominate her friend Jackson to run for the position. When the group was asked who should run for the position, Jackson beat Wilson to the punch and nominated Wilson.
Wilson would go on to win and become the first Black person to serve on Decatur’s city commission while Jackson became Wilson’s campaign manager.
“At the meeting I was ready to say [Joy Jackson] should be elected. I was shocked because I never thought the president of a bank’s guests would support an African American running for city commission. Before my hand could go up Joy said ‘I think Elizabeth should be our candidate,’ and everyone agreed,” said Wilson, laughing. “That’s how it all started.”
Wilson said she defeated six other candidates, which according to her, was the most candidates to run for a position at that time.
Wilson said being elected to public office was difficult because “she had no idea what she was going to do.” Decatur’s first Black city commissioner said she didn’t have anyone to talk to so she could figure out exactly what she was supposed to do.
“I had to start at zero because no one had ever been in that position,” Wilson said. “If nothing else happens, I hope that young people will step out on faith like I did. I love my neighborhood and I lived my life in the Beacon community. Black people need to have a seat at the table. I hope young people realize that you need to be at the table where decisions are made with you, not for you.”
Being one of the first Black people to hold public office in Decatur wasn’t easy, Wilson said. Wilson, who moved to the Beacon Hill community in 1949, said she had to learn how to build up her confidence throughout her childhood. In the 1960s, she recalled seeing the Ku Klux Klan in Decatur for the last time.
As she recalled, the KKK held a meeting in the Decatur square and marched throughout different neighborhoods in the area.
Wilson said instead of hiding, her and a small group of neighbors got together where they could be seen by the Klan.
“We wanted to let them know we could see them. I wasn’t scared. I can remember I thought as a child they would just come and kill me, but this time I wasn’t scared,” Wilson said. “They would say terrible things like nigger this and nigger that.”
Wilson continued to stand up for what she believed in, she said. Wilson also played a key role in desegregating Decatur’s school system.
In 2000, a sculpture located in the downtown Decatur plaza titled ‘celebration” was made in her honor. Recently, Renfroe Middle School’s Black History Month Program featured Wilson in a performance titled, “We remember Beacon Hill: Stories of history and hope through the eyes of Elizabeth Wilson.”
“I didn’t sit on the commission just to vote on something. I sat on the commission because I wanted to make a change and if something was going to affect my community I wanted to let them know,” Wilson said. “That’s how we make a difference. My serving in all of my capacities has made a difference.”
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