The Woman Behind a Family of History Makers: The Life of Dr. Irene Dobbs Jackson

Born in 1908, Dr. Irene Dobbs Jackson was the first of six daughters born to Irene and John Wesley Dobbs. In her early years, Irene, known as “Renie,” and her family resided in Auburn Avenue, a thriving neighborhood in Atlanta known as an epicenter of Black culture and excellence in the South. She was a brilliant academic, graduating valedictorian of her high school and 1929 Spelman College classes, and a talented pianist, a skill that ultimately led her to her future husband.

In 1932, while playing piano at a party in her Auburn Avenue neighborhood, Renie met Maynard Jackson Sr., her husband-to-be. Before tying the knot, she moved to France to study for a Master’s degree in French at the University of Toulouse.

During this same time, her father John Wesley Dobbs embarked on a mission to secure voting rights for Black Americans. Believing that enfranchisement was the key to overcoming segregation, Dobbs started a voter registration drive in 1936 with a goal of registering 10,000 Black voters in Georgia. That year, Dobbs founded the Atlanta Civic and Political League, and over the next decade more than 20,000 Black citizens were registered to vote. In 1946, following this decade of success, Dobbs founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League and, using his found influence and leadership, convinced then-Mayor Hartsfield Jackson to integrate the Atlanta Police force.

By then, Renie had returned from France and married Jackson Sr., a preacher at Friendship Baptist Church. In 1949, the couple built and moved into their new home at 220 Sunset Avenue in the Vine City neighborhood on the Westside. They chose the location for their family’s home because of the neighborhood’s reputation as a nice, middle-class Black neighborhood. The couple and their six children lived in apartment three on the second floor. Maynard used the third floor apartment as his office and they rented out the two first-floor units to generate additional income.

During this time, Jackson Sr. became increasingly involved in the local push for civil rights for Black Atlantans, using his position as a leader in his prominent Black church to encourage increased political involvement in the Black community.

A few years later in 1953, Jackson Sr. passed away and Renie decided to further pursue her education, returning again to the University of Toulouse for a doctorate in French. In 1959, she returned home to both her Sunset Avenue home and alma mater Spelman College, where she assumed a post as a professor.

As a scholar in a constant pursuit of new knowledge, she headed to her local Atlanta Public Library. While in France, she had been free to join any library she chose and check out any books-–but that was not the case at home. Segregation restricted Black people from full participation in the library system. Black Atlantans were permitted to read books, but only in the basement of a segregated branch of the library system. Additionally, they couldn’t hold an official library card to the main branches of the Atlanta Public Library system.

Determined to be the difference, Dr. Jackson walked into the main branch of the Atlanta Public Library and demanded equal treatment, applying for a library card. Within a few days, her application was approved, and Dr. Irene Jackson was the first Black person in the city’s history to be issued a public library card. Today, she’s credited with integrating the Atlanta Public Library system.

Her leadership in the fight for equality went on to inspire her children, including her son Maynard Jackson Jr. From his earliest days on Sunset Avenue into his adulthood, Maynard Jr. was a champion for the Black community. After years of community leadership, he was elected as Atlanta’s first Black mayor in 1973.

The Jackson family sold their home in 1969, but its historical significance grew. In 1970, the home was purchased by Southern Rural Action Incorporated and was used to house visiting scholars who came to see The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, an organization founded by Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2020, Westside Future Fund purchased the Sunset Avenue home to restore and apply for historic designation on the National Register of Historic Places. Renovations are currently underway. Once completed, the reimagined property will serve as affordable housing for researchers and graduate students affiliated with the Atlanta University Center, and it will stand as a landmark for years to come.