John Hope, originally from Augusta, could have been a lot.
Intellectually brilliant, persuasive charmer, calm, analytical, a gifted speaker, he could have been successful in almost any area of business or politics or both.
Instead, he became an educator and made his mark first as a teacher and then as a builder of the facilities and institutions that higher education needs.
John Hope was also something more, a social reformer, advocating for civil rights opportunities for all who worked to this end until his death in Atlanta in 1936.
John Hope’s story began in Augusta where he was born three years after the Civil War.
His father was a successful Scottish businessman who came to Augusta through New York. His mother was Mary Frances Butts, a free black woman from Hancock County. State law did not allow marriage between races, so they lived together openly as male and female.
When John was 8, his father passed away and his family’s comfortable life took a turn when problems arose with the late businessman’s will.
Young John would drop out of school in eighth grade to work and help the family, but his talent in the classroom would remind him. After a few years, he left for Northern prep school, then Brown University in Rhode Island, graduated and became a teacher, first at Roger Williams University near Nashville, then at Atlanta Baptist College, which later became Morehouse College. He became the first black president of this school in 1906, a position he held until 1929 when he became president of the University of Atlanta.
Hope also began to work on a larger plan. Along with WEB Du Bois and others, he was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, a national civil rights effort that would lead to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of People of Color.
Hope was also active in the National Urban League, the YMCA, and the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools.
Hope advocated a different educational approach from that once advocated by Booker T. Washington, which favored a black focus on industrial and business schools. Hope saw no reason for such limits.
These efforts would create a challenge for Hope – whether it be to remain an educator and college administrator, or to focus on broader changes in American social life.
He tried to maintain both, but it wasn’t easy.
As the secretary of the YMCA with black soldiers in France during World War I, he was disappointed with their treatment. Back home, a number of race riots in the early decades of the 1900s were also disappointing.
He sought solutions by joining Will W. Alexander, a white man from the South, to organize the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Hope was the group’s first president.
His work was in progress when he died of pneumonia in February 1936, leaving a vacuum that was difficult to fill because John Hope was irreplaceable, writes LD Newton in The Atlanta Constitution.
“Not only Atlanta, not only Georgia, not just the South, but the entire nation and the education community have lost one of its true leaders,” he said.
“He was a man of such leadership capacity that he conjured up ever greater gifts from wealthy men who believed in him and his program.
“He has always been a calm and considerate gentleman, always seeking information and inspiration for a task which he saw as God’s will for his life.”
“He knew how to move among kings, and he knew how to help the most humble person anywhere.”
Bill Kirby has reported, photographed and commented on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.