As The Chronicle continues to honor Black History Month, the next entry into this celebratory series is Fannie Hughes, who was the first African American female elected to Swainsboro City Council. Hughes, now 83-years-old, began her historical campaign 37 years ago, so she would have been around the age of 45 or 46. Hughes’ term would persist from January 1984 all the way until 1997 for a grand total of 13 years of service.
Judge Kelmer Durden would administer the oath that would swear Hughes into Swainsboro City Council. When asked how the ceremony went, Hughes said, “It just went by the books.”
Upon her successful coronation into Swainsboro City Council, Hughes did not hesitate to tell her family members, all of whom were so proud of her accomplishment. However, it wasn’t just her family who supported Hughes on her journey as she amassed a great deal of support from all members of her community.
Hughes says, “We had did a lot of work trying to reach the city district and to get black representation on the city council and also the county commission, who we were urged to working with. We did not have black representation in the city council.”
Lee Arthur Williams would be the first one out of this group to apply to run for city council, and it was out of respect for Williams that Hughes would not oppose him during his campaign. Hughes expands on this by saying, “Another black would not run against him in our group. At the time, we were just trying to get black representation in our city and county government.”
However, after Williams’ initial three years as a member of the Swainsboro City Council, he would run against Hughes, who also served in the same ward as Williams and would successfully defeat him en route to the city council by 9 votes.
When asked what the public’s reaction was to Hughes running for city council, she says, “Oh, they were really happy. Everyone supported me real good. Everyone I talked to was real pleased and was real happy that I decided to run.”
She goes on to say about her feelings leading up her campaign, “I felt real good because I was interested in the city, and I wanted to do something to see if I could help make it grow and be more prosperous.”
One way in which Hughes was able to accumulate so much support for her campaign was by going above and beyond for her community. For example, she went to the registrar’s office, looked through a list of all the registered voters in her district, and, one by one, did her best in meeting them and talking to them, inquiring as to what they wanted to see from a residential leader. She goes on to explain that it was difficult to meet every single person in her district, even though it was small, because there was still so many people to talk to.
Hughes went even further to show her support for her community by, in her own words, doings ads in the paper to apologize to those she couldn’t reach and still asking for their vote because it takes a while to cover the whole town. This personal approach of hers to connect with her community no doubt played a huge role in her gathering such a large support group during her campaign. She would pass on this knowledge to her friend and fellow supporter, Betty Yeomans, who would successfully campaign for superintendent of Emanuel County.
Hughes has high regards for those who supported her along the way, but a few names in particular resonated more with her during her journey. Hughes again references the group she was apart of prior to campaigning in saying, “There was a group of us here in Emanuel County and in Swainsboro, and I had some friends that lived out of town that came down to help us out.”
Representative David Lucas and his wife, Elaine Lucas, were chief among the names of supporters Hughes mentioned. She also mentions Roberta Davenport, Cecil Strong, the late John Simmons, Jenny Phillips, and Pat Young, among others, as the people most instrumental in her circle of supporters.
Hughes felt her qualifications for the election was her drive to see Swainsboro improve and with such a large support group backing her, all she had to do was take the proper initiative in setting out for this goal. Hughes says there was a lot of work that needed to be done in the city of Swainsboro, and all she could do was present it to the council for voting.
“I would always do my best to ensure that the quality of life in Swainsboro could be better,” she said in retrospect.
She accomplished this goal in a number of ways, but she says in her time in office, she was most responsible for “redoing some sidewalks, adding more streetlights, and doing some litter-related cleaning up. It takes a while to accomplish more because you’re limited to the amount of funds that you have available to you. You have to share the funds throughout all the wards.”
One other primary accomplishment of hers during her time in office, she says, was erecting a rec department, being instrumental in developing The Boneyard, and contributing some other cleaning work throughout Swainsboro.
Upon hearing of her successful bid for election into the Swainsboro City Council, Hughes says, “I was at an apartment with some friends, and we didn’t really throw a celebration. We were just very happy, glad it was over wit,h and ready to get to work.”
She reiterated the importance of working together; she always encouraged people to let her know what else she needed to do because one person doesn’t know everything.
Hughes would stay close to those who were willing to work with her throughout her tenure as a city council member. Hughes would gladly accept advisory guidance and pointers from her many supporters. As with any role of this capacity, she had to remind those in her company there was some stuff she “just couldn’t do” because of the limited funds. She always told people, “I must remind you that I don’t want you to get angry and upset about it because everything that you want, you’re not going to get it.”
Hughes then calls back to her first city council meeting and describes it as “very cordial.” She goes on to say, “Everyone was getting to know one another.”
Because it was just their first meeting, there wasn’t really any pressing business that had to be addressed, besides getting everyone comfortable and assigned to their respective department branches, (eg., the police department, recreation, firefighting service, among others). Each department head would then report to the council periodically as to what they had accomplished and hoped to accomplish in the future. Besides this recollection of the first city council meeting, Hughes says about the following meetings, “They pretty much just went by the books.” Hughes adds that the relationship between the members of her city council was always respectful, even between members of differing political parties. Hughes suggests that a beautiful relationship existed between city council and the mayor. Of course, there were sometimes the group could get off track, but otherwise speaking, it was a “very good relationship.” The primary focus was always on allowing each respective member of council to voice their opinion and amicably discuss the issues.
When asked if she faced any challenges during her campaign, Hughes couldn’t recall any such obstacles and spoke glowingly once more of the support she had received. She adds to this in saying, “I’ve always been a people person. I can get along with everyone, and I’ve always like to work within the community. I never thought only about myself; I always thought about others.”
As for being apart of the local African American history, Hughes says, “At the time when I was running, I did not know. I just wanted to do something to help. I didn’t really think about what would go down in the books.”
It wasn’t until after her 13 years as a member of the Swainsboro City Council that she could take a step back and register what she had been apart of. Hughes now says looking back on it and having read some of the articles, she’s really proud that she ran and won—as is her family. Family and community are the most important aspects of Hughes’ life, she says, as well as her relationship with God. She lovingly exclaimed her love for the Lord and called her faith her “guiding strength.”
The biggest inspirations in Hughes’ life were her cousin, Jessie, her kids, and her mother, Janie Turner, who taught Hughes, in her own words “whatever you do, do it well.” She mentions also her grandfather, Jessie Scott, as someone she looked up to in her life. Hughes further notes that she was apart of the NAACP, having served as its treasurer. She is also a lifetime member of 70+ years to Smith Grove Baptist Church, where Reverend Wilbert Kennedy presides as pastor, and is also a member of The Order of the Eastern Star. Hughes confidently professes she also sang in the choir until she couldn’t walk as well as she used to; however, she still loves to sing today. Hughes also takes great pride in her time spent with the Georgia Sheriff’s Youth Home, which she lovingly refers to as “her ministry,” going on to say, “I love those children, and I love helping others.”
Hughes also details her work history with Automatic Sprinklers, a company for which she sold automatic sprinkler heads. Hughes also worked for a small furniture retailer as well Southern Laundry, where she was responsible for working the press and pretty much running the shop. Hughes received an award for being a dedicated employee as well for her time spent with Georgia Sheriff’s Youth Home. Finally, she received a grand marshal’s award for her inclusion in the Martin Luther King parade.
Finally, The Chronicle wraps up its interview with Fannie Hughes by asking for her thoughts on how much progress has been made in terms of the African American community and its standing in conventional and professional society. Hughes’ thoughts on this were, in her own words, “There is still a long ways to go. Jobs are still not as plentiful as they should be, and I think more people should be involved in politics.”
Hughes continued, “I want more people to get involved in politics and actually be able to understand what is going on around them. It’s really important to know what is going on because it’s not as easy as you think. You have to be willing to work together, make decisions, and make the right decisions.” Politics after all, are not just black and white, as there are so many nuances and variables that can determine the outcome of any decision that is made or even discussed. She says it is very important that you become a part of the discussion and not just a proponent of the outcome.
Hughes ends the interview with some words of advice for the younger generation in saying, “If you feel there is anything you can do to make history, set your goals and go for it. Regardless of what anyone says, get you a good education and keep yourself clean. Reach for the stars. You can touch ‘em if you reach high enough. If you can’t reach high enough at first, don’t get discouraged; it’s not easy by a long shot. Put God first and He will surely give you the strength.”
Hughes is very proud of her African American heritage and says, “I’m just trying to be the person God made me to be, and that’s what we all should be. Whether He made you African American, Caucasian, or whatever else, this is what God wants you to be. God will be your strength, but you got to be willing to put Him first because once you put Him first, any challenge that comes your way, you can just overlook it. Focus only on the positive side of life, not the negative side of life. If more people learned to be positive and stopped criticizing others, you can accomplish whatever you want.”
This interview was an absolute honor on The Chronicle’s behalf. We thank you, Fannie Hughes, so much for your time spent talking with us. Thank you, also, to our readers who have supported us as we continue to build and transform not only our culture within this news source but also the community here in Emanuel County.