Hugh M. Dorsey – New Georgia Encyclopedia

Georgia Governor Hugh M. Dorsey brought both young and progressive ideas to the office in 1917. As a lawyer by profession, he led numerous educational initiatives, vehemently opposed the violence of the mob against black Georgians and condemned the state’s practice of a political system of conventions. While Dorsey tried with some success to lead Georgia into a more progressive era, he will forever be remembered as the man who prosecuted the infamous Leo Frank case.

Hugh Manson Dorsey was born on July 10, 1871 in Fayetteville, the son of Matilda Bennett and Rufus Thomas Dorsey, a prominent lawyer. Dorsey attended public schools in Atlanta as well as private schools in Atlanta and Hartwell. He studied at the University of Georgia from 1889-93 and at the University of Virginia Law School in 1894. The next year he returned to Atlanta to work in his father’s law firm Dorsey, Brewster and Howell (later Dorsey, Brewster, Howell, and Heyman) where he later became a partner. In 1910 he was appointed attorney general of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit, holding the unexpired term of Charles D. Hill. The following year Dorsey married Adair Wilkinson of Valdosta. The couple had two children.

In 1913, the young mill worker Mary Phagan was found murdered in the basement of the Atlanta Pencil Factory and her Jewish employer, Leo Frank, was accused of the crime. In his brief tenure as a lawyer, Dorsey had pursued two other high profile cases and received no convictions in any of them. The Frank Trial was conducted in a carnival-like atmosphere, partly fueled by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of political giant Thomas E. Watson. Dorsey’s energetic indictment and subsequent success in the case earned him Watson’s favor. When outgoing Governor John M. Slaton overturned Frank’s verdict, protests broke out, led by Watson. A mob tore Frank from his cell in Milledgeville, carried him to Marietta, lynched him, and mutilated his body.

Dorsey, unknown until the Frank case, carried his newfound popularity to the gubernatorial race of 1916. Openly supported by Watson, he stepped onto a platform of law enforcement and government non-interference in legal proceedings. At forty-five, Dorsey was the youngest man in the race and easily defeated incumbent Nat Harris and two other candidates. In 1918 he was re-elected with a clear margin. During his tenure, the conventional electoral method was replaced nationwide by the county unit system, which favored rural areas. In response to the labor shortage caused by World War I and the emigration of African Americans, lawmakers passed a forced labor law. Registered colleges, academies, seminaries, church properties, public spaces and charities have been granted tax exemptions, and a public welfare panel has been created to inspect prisons and correctional institutions. In 1919 the legislature passed the most comprehensive school law to date. This included compulsory attendance, the codification of existing laws, the establishment of an illiteracy commission and the qualifications and tasks of an education committee. A law change in 1920 required a county school tax and abolished legal restrictions on black education. Dorsey’s initiatives reduced the illiteracy rate and introduced much-needed reforms to the state’s ailing education system.

In 1920 Dorsey ran against his old ally Watson for the US Senate. He supported both the League of Nations and a minimum wage and also spoke out in favor of the repeal of espionage and sedition laws and non-state control of the railways. More progressive than his opponent, particularly on the issue of race, Dorsey lost heavily to Watson and returned to Atlanta to serve as governor for the remainder of his tenure. Before leaving office, however, he published a pamphlet entitled A Statement of Governor Hugh M. Dorsey as to the Negro in Georgia (1921) to be presented at a citizens’ conference. In it, he listed 135 examples of alleged ill-treatment of black Georgians and suggested remedial measures such as compulsory education for both races, penalties for districts where lynchings took place, and a state commission to investigate these crimes. Historically an opponent of the mob violence that so stigmatized the South, he wrote: “It seems to me that we as a people stand accused before the world.”

After leaving office in 1921, Dorsey resumed his legal practice. In 1926 he was appointed judge of the Atlanta City Court, later elected to that office, and served until 1935. He then became a Supreme Court Justice of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. Dorsey died in Atlanta on June 11, 1948 and was buried in Westview Cemetery.