Emma Darnell, a Fulton County commissioner known for her advocacy for vulnerable people over decades of public service, died Sunday in Atlanta.
She was 84.
Darnell joined the County Commission in 1992, but had for years been a champion for minorities, seniors and the poor even before she held elected office. She won her eighth term representing the south part of Fulton County in 2016.
In recent months, Darnell was largely absent from government meetings as she recovered from a foot injury and battled an undisclosed illness, but she attended the commission meeting Wednesday. There, she voted to give cost-of-living increases to retirees whose pensions didn’t automatically have them and to continue funding a pre-arrest diversion program. She questioned a proposal that would have spent $250,000 on a feasibility study to bring a new music museum to the county.
“You can’t spend tax dollars to pursue the cultural interests of individuals. A public case must be made,” she said. “Twenty-five thousand I could let go by, but $250 (thousand), maybe I need to do a little research.”
Always passionate and often fiery, Darnell had long-held beliefs about what was right and what was not, and wasn’t afraid to share them.
A former professor, she started her public service career in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then joined the city of Atlanta’s government when Sam Massell was elected mayor. Massell said he remembered meeting Darnell, a member of Delta Sigma Theta, while welcoming the sorority to town for a conference at the Butler Street YMCA in the late 1960s.
“She was so articulate and well-composed in her remarks to the audience that it was then that I met her and I told her that if I ever went to City Hall … I want you to come with me,” said Massell, the current head of the Buckhead Coalition.
He hired her to manage contracts at all levels of government. In that job, Massell said, Darnell “played a key role” in helping transition the city from an all-white power structure to a predominately black City Hall.
Darnell quickly garnered respect in Massell’s administration and around the country. She graced the cover of Chicago-based Jet magazine in May 1970, where she was described as a young and gifted lawyer.
“She speaks with that molasses drawl, so slow and sweet — one of the charms that will crown the Southern black woman queen wherever her feet touch Earth,” the article said. “And what you hear is an extraordinarily intelligent and articulate woman.”
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Darnell was the founding chair of the Women’s Advisory Council of Atlanta city government, which formed in the summer of 1973 after a special report made the now-widely accepted conclusion that discrimination based on sex and gender does exist. In June 1975, she told the Chicago Sun-Times that “88% of all (city) jobs above $10,000 are held by white males.” Outside of her office, she said, the only black women employed by the city were cleaning the building.
And an October 1975 story in The Atlanta Constitution that listed Darnell’s annual pay at $29,068 said she was “not here to play.”
“It is very difficult to deal with Emma at times,” said one ranking official at the time, who asked to be quoted anonymously because of Darnell’s power. “She can be sweet, and she can be vicious.”
Darnell was fired from the city in February 1977, after discord between her and then-Mayor Maynard Jackson about her efforts to implement anti-discrimination laws and about complaints that she mistreated staff. Darnell appealed her firing to the Atlanta City Council, but decided to resign in return for $6,800 of severance pay and no action being taken on the accusations against her.
She ran against Jackson in the mayor’s race later that year, but lost by more than 50,000 votes.
Robb Pitts, the current chairman of the Fulton County Commission, said Darnell crafted early legislation at the city level that would create opportunities for minority- and female-owned businesses. He called her strong-willed and brilliant, and said she was a tireless public servant who believed in equal opportunity for all.
“You may disagree with her, but you could not challenge her and question her on the facts,” he said. “She did her homework.”
Lee Morris, a former city councilman and current county commissioner, said the pair often didn’t agree on policy. But he called her the “conscience of the County Commission on social issues,” and said the work that’s being done to provide equal opportunities to all residents is often because of Darnell’s history and advocacy.
“I think she had a good heart,” he said.
Liz Hausmann, another county commissioner, said she took a selfie with Darnell at Wednesday’s meeting and was pleased to see that she had returned to work. Darnell was well-loved by seniors in the community, and a Fulton County senior center bears her mother’s name. Hausmann said her colleague often advocated for seniors regardless of geography, even though leaders are often divided between north and south.
Pitts agreed. “If anyone thinks of anything dealing with senior citizens in our area, they have to think of the name Emma Darnell,” he said.
Felicia Moore, president of the Atlanta City Council, said in a statement that Darnell was a servant leader whose body of work left a legacy to be revered.
“She spoke truth to power and courageously fought for the least, the lost, and the forgotten without hesitation,” she said.
Bill Edwards, the mayor of the city of South Fulton, was a colleague of Darnell’s for many years before the state Legislature redrew County Commission lines and the two were forced to run against each other. He lost to Darnell twice, but said he still considered her a close friend.
Darnell helped him understand government dynamics, he said, and reminded him that elected office was always about serving the people. She also had a wicked sense of humor, and made it difficult for him and others to maintain their composure through meetings, he said.
Edwards said he will continue to follow Darnell’s advice for how to be a good leader: just serve.
“She worked tirelessly to build a good government, not just for herself, but for everybody,” he said. “I will continue to fight those battles with her voice whispering in my ear.”
The remainder of Darnell’s term, which expires next year, will be filled in a special election. A date for the vote has not been set.
No funeral arrangements had been announced Sunday.
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