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Dobbs, John Wesley (1882-1961) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Dobbs, John Wesley (1882-1961)

Historical Note:

John Wesley Dobbs, civil rights activist and patriarch of a prominent family in Atlanta, Georgia, fought for African American suffrage and integration. The father of six daughters, Dobbs insisted his children pursue excellence and stressed the importance of education and first class citizenship. He founded the Georgia Voters League (1935) and headed the Grand Lodge of Prince Hall Freemasons (1932-1961).

Dobbs, son of William and Minnie M. (nee Hendricks), was born on March 26, 1882, in Kennesaw, Georgia. When Dobbs was two years old; his parents separated and his mother moved to Savannah, Georgia, to find work. For the first nine years of his life, Dobbs and older, sister Willie, lived with their paternal grandparents on a farm in near Marietta, Georgia. In 1891, Minnie sent for her children to live with her in Savannah. There, Dobbs completed grammar school (1897) at West Broad Street School while working various jobs, such as delivering the Savannah Press newspaper and shining shoes at the local barber shop.

At the age of 15, Dobbs moved to Atlanta where he obtained his high school diploma from the Atlanta Baptist College (Morehouse College) in 1901. He enrolled in the freshman class of Morehouse College, but left shortly thereafter to return to Savannah to take care of his ailing mother. Although he never earned his college degree, he maintained "a thirst for knowledge" and independently studied literature, history, and philosophy throughout his life. In 1903, he took the civil service examination and was certified with the railway mail service for the Atlanta to Nashville mail run, a post he held for 32 years. He started as a clerk and was later promoted to Chief Clerk in charge of a crew of white men.

In 1906, he married Irene Ophelia Thompson (1885-1972) of Columbus, Mississippi, and the couple bore six daughters: Irene Carolyn, Willie Juliet, Millicent Doris, Josephine Ophelia, Mattiwilda, and June Serena. Dobbs taught his daughters to never accept segregation unless it was absolutely necessary. He forbade them from going to segregated theaters or amusement venues because it was "no pleasure to go in the back door." He often worked numerous jobs to ensure he could provide for his daughters' education. All six daughters graduated from Spelman College, obtained master's degrees, and two earned their doctorates.

Dobbs joined the Prince Hall Freemasons, a fraternal order which attracted the black middle class, in 1911. He served as the Grand Lodge Officer (1914-1924) and Secretary-treasurer of the Masonic Relief Association (1924-1924), which was the financial department of the Grand Lodge. In 1932, he was elected as Grand Master of the State in the United Supreme Council, Thirty-Three Degree, Southern Jurisdiction and re-elected every year for the remainder of his life.

In 1935, he founded the Atlantic Civic and Political League and became first president. The goal of the league was "to awaken Atlanta Negroes to their civic and political consciousness" through the use of the ballot. He was also the founder and president of the Georgia Voters League which registered approximately 175,000 African American voters in 1961. He headed the Georgia State-Wide Registration Committee, co-founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League, and served as vice-chairman of the Georgia State Central Committee of the Republican Party and national vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

John Wesley Dobbs died on August 30, 1961, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Irene "Renie" Dobbs Jackson (1908-1999), the eldest daughter, is the mother of the first African American mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson Jr. (1938-2003). She was the first African American to obtain a library card from the Atlanta Public Library. She graduated as valedictorian from Spelman College (1925) and earned her master's and doctorate degrees (1956) in French from the University of Grenoble and the University of Toulouse in France, respectively. She also served as the head of the French department at Spelman and as a chair of the Modern Languages department of North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina.

She married Maynard Jackson Sr., and the couple had six children: Jeanne, Alexandra, Maynard Jr., Carol, Constance, and Paul.

Willie Dobbs Blackburn (1910- ), the second born, graduated at the top of her class from Spelman College (1931) and received her master's degree from Atlanta University (1934). She moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where she served as chairman of the language division of Jackson State University. The Willie Dobbs Blackburn Language Arts Building on Jackson State University's campus is named in her honor.

She married Benjamin Blackburn, and the couple had two children: Juliette and Benjamin Blackburn.

Millicent Dobbs Jordan (1911-1991), the middle daughter, was a college professor especially interested in Africa, African American history, and African art. During her lifetime, she made frequent trips to the continent of Africa. She received her bachelor's degree from Spelman College (1933) and her master's degree in speech and drama from Columbia University (1938). She returned to Spelman to teach English and African American literature. She also taught at Georgia State, Arkansas State, and Morris Brown Colleges.

She married dentist Dr. Robert H. Jordan and had three children: Robert, and twin boys James and Dobbs.

Josephine Dobbs Clement (1918-1998), the forth born, was a community advocate and civil rights leader focused on the political and social justice movements of Durham, North Carolina. She graduated from Spelman in 1937 College and received her master's degree from Columbia University the following year. After moving to Durham in the late 1940s, Clement was actively involved in desegregating the YWCA and the League of Women's Voters. She was appointed to the Durham City-County Charter Commission and also chaired the city's board of education. She was also a member of the city-county library board in Durham, a director of Durham's Better Health Foundation, and a volunteer worker at the Durham Children's House. The Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School in Durham was named in her honor.

She married North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company executive William A. Clement, and the couple had five children: William Jr., Wesley, Arthur, Kathleen, and Jody.

Mattiwilda "Geekie" Dobbs Janzon (1925- ), the fifth born, is an internationally-known concert performer and one of the first African Americans to sing at the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. She received her bachelor's degree in music and Spanish from Spelman College (1946), where she graduated first in her class. She moved to New York and pursued vocal lessons with German soprano Lottie Leonard while studying Spanish at Columbia University, where she ultimately earned her master's degree (1948). She vowed never to sing to a segregated audience and performed many major festivals and opera houses throughout Europe and the United States. Upon retiring from the stage in 1974, she taught at the University of Texas, Spelman, and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Her first husband, playwright and journalist Luis Rodriguez, died shortly after their marriage. She later married Swedish journalist Bengt Janzon.

Dr. June Dobbs Butts (1928- ), the youngest daughter, is one of the first African American sexologists. She obtained her bachelor's degree in sociology from Spelman College (1948) and her master's degree in counseling (1950) and doctorate in family life education from Columbia University. She taught in the psychology department at Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and Meharry Medical College. She also worked for the Masters and Johnson Institute, a clinical and research foundation which studied human sexuality. She has authored many books and articles on sex, teenage pregnancy, and AIDS.

She married and later divorced psychiatrist Dr. Hugh Butts. The couple had three children: Lucia, Florence and Eric.


The papers of John Wesley Dobbs Family.

Irene Dobbs Jackson, Former Mayor's Mom, Inspired Students at Spelman, N.C. Central. Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003); January 24, 1999; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Atlanta Daily World: 1931-2003: pg. 1.

"John Wesley Dobbs (1882-1961)," New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 28, 2011: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2509.

Josephine Dobbs Clement Succombs. Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003); March 26, 1998; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Atlanta Daily World: 1931-2003: pg. 11.

"June Dobbs Butts Biography," The HistoryMakers. Retrieved April 28, 2011: http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=1455&category=MedicalMakers.

Oral History Interview with William and Josephine Clement, June 19, 1986. Interview C-0031. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Note Author: Amber L. Moore

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