DOROTHY ROGERS TILLY
2023 Inductee, Georgia Women of Achievement
June 30, 1883
City, Town, Region
Born in Hampton, Georgia, in 1883, Dorothy Eugenia Rogers was raised by her father, a Methodist minister and her mother, a well-educated Southern woman. Watching her father help the poorest from the parsonage steps instilled compassion and faith, and she became president of the Children’s Missionary Society at age 12. Her mother, a graduate of Wesleyan Female College, ensured her children were educated, and Tilly graduated from Reinhardt College in 1899 and Wesleyan Female College in 1901.
In 1904, she married Milton Eben Tilly and had a son, Eben, the next year. After a difficult pregnancy, doctors advised her not to have more children. When Eben was old enough to go off to school, her husband encouraged her involvement with the Methodist Church. Through courses, she learned how to provide religious education to youth. An Atlanta church selected her to oversee their education programs in 1915, and in 1916 she was elected to the children’s work committee at the Woman’s Missionary Society for the North Georgia Conference of the Methodist Church. While attending conferences, fundraising for orphans, visiting every district church, and promoting youth activities, she became one of the first women trustees at Wesleyan College. Over these years, she promoted racial understanding by having white youths read to poorer children of both races and fundraised for enriching experiences for young black children.
Tilly led seminars at colleges, conferences, and institutes, many of which focused on issues of race. In 1929, she began working with the summer leadership conference at Paine College, which prepared black women for leadership roles in their churches and communities. Tilly became director and dean of women in 1933, a position she used to recruit and provide scholarships for the program.
In 1931, she became one of the first Georgians to join the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL). She traveled to cities soliciting pledges from law enforcement that they would not tolerate lynchings and provided reliable information on lynchings to the public. She then became secretary of the Georgia chapter of ASWPL and a prominent member of the Dekalb-Fulton Interracial Committee of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC).
During the 1930s, Tilly worked with the CIC alongside the Georgia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (GFCWC) to establish a school for delinquent Black girls in Macon, Georgia. After the state legislature passed a bill for the school, Governor Talmadge vetoed it. Tilly met with Talmadge’s rival and campaigned for him after he pledged to open the school. She continued her efforts until the girls were sent off to school.
When World War II began, Tilly opposed the violence and became president of the Georgia chapter of the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. However, she supported the war effort once the United States was involved and worked with the Emergency Committee for Food Production (ECFP), a lobbying group aimed to save the Farm Security Administration, part of the New Deal. In 1944, she became president of the ECFP and lived in Washington, D.C., for several months but happily returned to Atlanta where she became a founding member of the Southern Regional Council (SRC). She was eventually in charge of women’s work. She was an excellent field worker, and, as a true southern church woman, she was able to extract information 4 from all kinds of people when racial incidents occurred. She developed contacts in cities across the South that she called on when the SRC heard of “happenings.” In 1946, she investigated the race riot in Columbia, Tennessee, and the lynching of two black couples in Monroe, Georgia, by large groups of masked men.
At the end of 1945, President Truman invited Tilly to be the only white woman and one of two southerners to serve on the Committee on Civil Rights. She came to realize desegregation was a necessity. Her insight into the realities of racial strife in the South and her willingness to highlight to the committee that problems existed in other parts of the country contributed greatly to the report they produced. “To Secure These Rights” called for an end to segregation in schools, military and public housing and impediments to voting, like the poll tax. Afterwards, she toured the country discussing its findings among church and secular groups. In 1949 alone, she visited 30 states.
Inspired by these experiences and in the wake of the dissolution of the ASWPL, Tilly founded a new interracial group to fight toward racial justice across the South, the Fellowship of the Concerned (FoC). During the summer of 1949, she attended the trial of the 31 white men who were charged with the lynching of a black man, Willie Earle. After witnessing the lawyers’ inappropriate jokes and reactions from the all-white jury, she saw how women could affect change. She encouraged members to attend the trials of blacks in their regions to ensure fairer trials; the presence of “proper ladies” elevated the behaviors of white participants. She also encouraged members to pressure local media to refer to black individuals the same as their white counterparts and to run positive stories about them. Members approached law enforcement to inquire about their diversity and treatment of different races. During this time she also successfully lobbied for an anti-mask law in South Carolina during the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence.
The FoC also worked towards desegregation and towards the goals of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Before and after Brown v. Board of Education, Tilly instructed members to help ease the South into desegregation by raising their children to accept the new schooling situation and ensuring they had playmates of different races. Many also became active participants in the educational system to ensure the goals of Brown were realized. After President Kennedy invited her to serve on the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, she and other members evaluated the compliance of cities with the 1964 Civil Rights Act with a questionnaire. They also helped black citizens register to vote and went to the polls with them, knowing their whiteness shielded them from the effects of Jim Crow.
Tilly had many opponents in her quest to bring about racial equality. She was often accused of communism. In the 1950s the Atlanta mayor informed her that the local Ku Klux Klan was planning an attack, which ultimately did not happen. When she received belligerent calls, she played a recording of the Lord’s Prayer or read Bible passages to diffuse the situation. When reporters published personal information of attendees at an Alabama conference, many women were endangered. Afterwards, she advised members use discretion when necessary. She never let attempts at violence and intimidation stop her.
While she continued to lead the annual FoC conferences into the 1960s with prominent speakers like Coretta Scott King, Tilly’s health began to fail, and she died in 1970. Although Tilly was not as radical and prominent as other supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, she 5 used her privileged position to improve race relations for decades and encouraged other white women to do likewise. She said, “There are no sacrifices to fighting for what’s right and compensations are many.