“Her impact…could never be put in perspective. And later, as a political and social columnist, she knew no bounds.”
– Furman Bisher
Celestine Sibley (1914-1999) won many awards and served many humanitarian causes during her career as a journalist, columnist, and author, becoming an iconic adopted daughter of Georgia. She was born on May 23, 1914, in Holly Florida to Henry Colley and Evelyn Barber, known as “Muv” later in Sibley’s columns.
At age seven she and her mother moved to Creola, Alabama, where she was adopted by her stepfather, Wesley, Reeder Sibley. By the time she was 15 years old she was a student reporter at Murphy High School and worked on the weekends as a cub reporter at the Mobile Press Register. After her graduation in 1933, Sibley received a full time paid position at the Press, where she covered everything, earning priceless experience.
While she was at the Press, Sibley married colleague and journalist James Little and they had three children. The couple moved to obtain a series of jobs for James, but Celestine always found work at newspapers, the first being the Pensacola News-Journal, and the next The Atlanta Constitution when James took a job in Atlanta for the Associated Press.
Sibley began work at the Constitution in 1941, covering the federal beat, but things would change a few months later when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The staff depletion allowed Sibley to move up through the ranks quickly and she became the first female editor in the male dominated field of journalism. She covered all the high profile stories of the day, and she received her first column in 1944. From then until 1978 she wrote about politics, the Georgia legislature, the trial of James Earl Ray who was convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1976 presidential election of Jimmy Carter, as well as serving as a Hollywood correspondent for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution Sunday magazine. She was recognized with many awards for her reporting.
She began a career as an author, first as a True Confessions and True Detective writer, and then later a series of Kate Mulcay mysteries. She became a syndicated columnist, writing about southern life, people and everyday events with knowledge, compassion and humor, and earning a large and loyal following. Dear Store, the history of Rich’s department store was one of her most popular and Children, My Children won the first Townsend Prize for children’s literature.
Celestine Sibley loved Georgia and Georgia loved her. She raised public awareness of many issues, inspiring political leaders as well as home-spun folks. She retired from reporting in 1990, but she continued to write. Her final column appeared in the Constitution only 20 days before her death.
Over the course of her career, Sibley was recognized with significant honors. In 1990 she received the Ralph McGill Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism. She considered Ralph McGill her mentor when she first arrived in Atlanta. In 1997 Celestine Sibley was just the fifth woman to receive the Shining Light Award, given by WSB Radio and the Atlanta Gas Light Company, to recognize Georgians “who have been an inspiration to the lives of others through service to humanity.” In 1999 she was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. In 2000, the Press Gallery in the Georgia House of Representatives was named in her honor. It is the only space in the Capitol designated and named for an individual.
In 2007 Celestine Sibley was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, whose mission is to “recognize Georgia writers, past and present, whose work reflects the character of the state – its land and its people.” These are fitting honors for a woman who paved the way for many women journalists to follow with interests and topics that ranged from gardening to human rights. Her impact on Georgians—women and men—can be summed up by her good friend, Furman Bisher: “Her impact…could never be put in perspective. And later, as a political and social columnist, she knew no bounds.”