From the Archives: Edmondson discusses growing up in LaGrange

Published 3:57 pm Friday, February 23, 2024

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story first published in LaGrange Living in May 2023. It has been published to The LaGrange Daily News website in remembrance of Mayor Willie Edmondson, who passed away last week. 

From nurse to mortician and funeral director, to councilman and now mayor, W.T. (Willie) Edmondson has had a remarkable career that all started growing up in rural Troup County.

After serving on the LaGrange City Council for 24 years, Edmondson was elected LaGrange’s first Black mayor on March 21, defeating former councilman Jim Arrington in a special election to fill the vacated seat of former Mayor Jim Thornton.

Edmondson said his life has changed quite a bit after the shift from councilman to mayor.

“It has changed to being extremely busy and having to be more in tune to what is actually going on all over the city rather than concentrating on one area. Now I’m concentrating on the whole city,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson said his first priorities are making sure the streets of LaGrange are safe and improving housing in the city.

Edmonson grew up in Troup County and later moved into the city as an adult. 

“Growing up in LaGrange was very nice. I was in the country though. I didn’t grow up in the city. I grew up in the country in a place called Antioch near Liberty Hill. Antioch was a wonderful community. My aunt owned the store, the dry goods store. My father owned the service station that pumped gas for the community. We had a farm. We had chickens and cows and hogs and all that stuff that country people have,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson went to the original Ethel Kight Elementary School and later to the original Troup High School after integration in 1971.

“It was a good school. [Otis] Abernathy was the principal at the time. Mr. [Jone] Debnam was the assistant principal because no Black principals were given head principalships at the time,” Edmondson said. “We had to look at all of that as children. But we still respected Mr. Abernathy, and we respected Mr. Debnam. We just took it, and we made the best out of it.”

“We had some teachers that were afraid of us, that were afraid to teach Black children. But they quickly found out some of us were afraid of White teachers. We found out that all of us working together could make things happen,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson said he loved English, chemistry and biology in high school, and he worked while attending Troup High.

“There was a program that Troup High had at the time called DCT, Diversified Cooperative Training, where poor children like myself could go to school. We would go to work in the morning at 6:30 a.m. at the hospital and work until 10:30 a.m. We would then leave there and go to school and take all of our classes,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson said he worked at then City-County Hospital as a DCT student until he graduated high school and then went to nursing school at West Georgia Tech. After finishing nursing school, he continued at the hospital as a nurse for about 20 years.

Finishing school was a priority for Edmondson because he said he didn’t want to go back to the farm.

“I made sure that I got an education. My father never really wanted me to go to nursing school because it was not very popular for a man to be in nursing school. He just flat-out did not accept that,” Edmondson said. “He was so adamant about me not becoming a nurse because he thought it was a sort of a soft job for a man to be a nurse. He didn’t come to my graduation.”

Edmondson said his father had gotten him a job as a brick mason, but he didn’t want to make a career of laying bricks out in the hot sun.

Edmondson said his father later became ill with colon cancer and passed away at the age of 55. He said before his father’s passing he was on morphine because he was in excruciating pain.

“I had to go and give him his shots,” Edmondson said, explaining that connection helped him reconcile with his father.

“I believe that before he passed away, he knew the importance of me going to nursing school,” Edmondson said. “He said to my face, ‘I appreciate you so much.’ That did more for me than him coming to my graduation. It’s just really blessed me.”

Edmondson said lifelong activism spurred him into politics.

“I guess I’ve always been an activist. I’ve always been for the underdog. My first march was from Ethel Kight to downtown because they had just taken [her] name off the school,” Edmondson said.

He said after integration the school system said they were not going to have any other schools named after people, so they took Kight’s name off the school and renamed it Troup Junior High.

“I formed a walkout, and we marched downtown to protest. It was Henry Davis, Gary Fanning and myself. Three guys were in school there. We said that that was not right for them to do that, and it wasn’t right,” Edmondson said. 

“It was only because they didn’t want their White children to go to school that was named after a Black woman.” Edmondson said, noting segregation was still prevalent. “We had just come from colored water fountains and segregated waiting rooms.”

“Ms. Kight had meant so much to children, and she loved all children. She meant so much to education. She took children in her own automobile and took them to school with her own money.”

Edmondson said he got into politics after being encouraged to run for mayor by Carl Von Epps. 

“I ran for mayor against Mayor [Gene] Woodall and Jeff Lukken. Mr. Epps called me and said ‘You need to run for mayor,’ so I was the sacrificial lamb. I ran for mayor. I was defeated, but I got a lot of votes.”

Edmondson said there was a runoff between Lukken and Woodall, and he threw his support to Lukken, who eventually won the seat.

After the initial loss, Edmondson had a decisive victory when running for the LaGrange City Council, where he served for 24 years.

Edmondson says he owes his success to the support of so many others growing up from his grandmothers and other family members, to countless community members and God.

“I’m a strong believer in Christ. I believe that He has ordered my steps my whole life. I’ve had people praying for me my whole life,” Edmondson said.

“I feel very humbled to become LaGrange’s first African American mayor. I’m humbled because all races voted for me to become mayor. They looked beyond my color, and they saw someone that was able to do the job and be fair,” he said.