While growing up on the family farm in Talbot County, William Huff III always had ideas on making life better for people. As an adult, he stayed in the community that nurtured him and became a trailblazer in business and politics.
In a 1971 upset victory that thrilled many voters and shocked and enraged others, Huff won election to the Talbot County Commission at age 26, becoming the first African-American elected to public office in the county and the youngest African-American county commissioner in the state.
Four years later, Huff became the first African-American Ford dealer in Georgia.
In 1988, he was elected the county’s first black tax commissioner, a post he held until his death on May 14 of heart failure at the age of 69. His funeral was May 19 at the Central High School Gym in Talbotton.
“He was courageous. He was an activist who believed in the good of all people,” said U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, whose second congressional district includes Talbot County. “When he was first elected, his family was threatened and he was threatened. In the ensuing years on the county commission and in his subsequent work, he showed everyone that he was a representative of the total community. He was a real bridge builder in that community. That speaks volumes about Mr. Huff.”
Born on Nov. 17, 1945, Huff showed a knack for leadership while growing up on the family farm in Woodland, Ga. Although he was the youngest of six children, Huff was always suggesting a better way to do things on the farm and delegated the tasks to his older siblings. A sister said they later joked about his desire to be the boss.
After graduating from high school in 1963, he said he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and work at the local cotton mill instead of going to college. That summer, his father asked his boss to give his youngest son the hardest job in the mill. Three weeks later, Huff quit his job at the mill. That fall, he entered Fort Valley State University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees by 1967.
“Our father wanted him to realize how hard it was trying to earn a living without a degree,” said his sister Lucy Smith of Atlanta. “He realized that he needed an education.”
After college, Huff returned to his hometown and taught at his former high school for two years while working part-time as a car salesman. He left teaching to work full-time as a car salesman at Meadows Motors in 1970.
The following year, he married teacher Emma Jean Hamilton, and they had three sons. His wife had participated in civil rights protests with Martin Luther King Jr. in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala. So when her husband announced in 1971 that he wanted to challenge the all-white political establishment and run for county commissioner, she said she encouraged his quest.
After defeating longtime incumbent Frank Jordan, death threats forced Huff and his family to flee the county for a few days. He returned and launched a political career that spanned more than 40 years.
Huff was known as a smooth talker, who had a strong work ethic, supported education and jobs and offered great customer service as a businessman and a commissioner.
His former boss at Meadows Motors was instrumental in helping Huff open the Ford dealership, which he operated for 13 years. He then focused on raising cows, selling used cars and public service.
As a county commissioner, he was a strong advocate for a countywide water and sewer system and joined the six-year fight to defeat a state plan to place a hazardous waste incinerator near the county line.
As tax commissioner, Huff worked to help residents keep their property by extending deadlines to pay taxes. He and his staff made efforts to locate out-of-town owners before their property was auctioned on the courthouse steps.
“He cared about everybody, black and white. They would call on him, and he’d do all he could to help them within the law,” his wife said.
Huff also served on several boards, including the Talbot County Planning Commission, Upson Technical College, the Independent Farming Association and the U.S. Selective Service System. He was a founding member of the Black Ford Lincoln Mercury Council. In 1998, Gov. George Busbee appointed him to the Governor’s Council on Aging.
In 2014, his political legacy came full circle when he supported the son of the commissioner he defeated back in the 1970s, said state Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, whose District 137 includes Talbot County.
“When he first ran, there was a racial divide. Blacks voted for blacks. Whites voted for whites. But William Huff won,” Buckner said. “He ran against a father and helped to elect a son. It’s a real testament to his integrity of supporting the best person for the job. People will miss his wisdom and guidance. He had a calming effect in times when we needed it.”
In addition to his wife and sister Lucy, Huff is survived by his sons William Vincent Huff of Leesburg, Ga., Reginald Huff of Fairburn and Jamie Huff of Talbotton; sisters Gertrude Huff of Woodland and Virginia Smith of West Palm Beach, Fla.; and eight grandchildren.