Mayor Lee Council

In the fall of 1918, The Americus Times Recorder reported on an increasingly bleak situation in the city. Chilling headlines—“'Flu’ Patients Should Remain Indoor for 4 Days Say Doctors," "Danger of Relapse is Very Great," and "Fatality of Disease is Largely Increased”—made the front page. For Americus Mayor Lee George Council, this was a challenge unlike any he had ever faced.

On October 22, the mayor issued a statement at the request of Acting Assistant Surgeon and Commissioner of Health, B.F. Bond. “Calling upon every citizen of this city to unite in an effort to check the spread of this disease,” Council asked citizens to wear masks furnished by the Red Cross. Reminding them of the reasons for closing the schools eight days earlier, Council stated that he hoped “that all our people will bear in mind that we are in the throes of a really serious epidemic.” He ended on an optimistic note, telling the people, “I sincerely trust that this measure suggested by the proper health authority will meet with the universal response of the people and that in a few days we may be met by a return to normal conditions.” Wealthy, and ambitious, Council was a “Representative of the New South” to many in the city. And yet, outside his proclamation, Council let little record of leadership during the public health crisis.

Lee Council House, courtesy of the Sumter Historic Trust

Born August 25, 1869, on the family plantation near Americus, he spent his youth immersed in the workings of farm life and developed a strong conviction in the merits of an agrarian lifestyle that he would hold on to until the day he died. He was close with his father, George Washington Council, a Confederate veteran and prominent local citizen. At 22-years old and newly educated in “the mysteries of modern business methods,” Council helped his father in the organization and establishment of Planters Bank of Americus in February 1892. He would take charge of the institution after his father’s death in 1900.

That same year he married Florence Hildreth, a native of Long Island who was ten years younger than him, and living with her family in Florida. To celebrate their marriage, he built an elaborate home for her that, according to the Times-Recorder, made “a magnificent appearance from the highway” and was “probably the costliest home in this section of Georgia.”

Council had an intense interest in business. His commercial endeavors included cotton, lime, and cement operations. He was “a stockholder in the majority of the industries and enterprises in Americus” and still somehow found the time to serve as “treasurer of the Americus Home Mixture Guano Co.” He owned real estate in the city as well, most notably taking over the Windsor Hotel. The Tradesman Magazine identified him as a favored citizen. "Whenever the rapid and substantial growth of Americus is mentioned," the magazine asserted, "the name of Lee Council is generally spoken of in the same breath.”

By the second decade of the twentieth century, Lee Council was a man of means, power and influence in Sumter County. The Tradesman Magazine asserted that “Mr. Council has never taken an active part in politics, his taste and inclinations not running in the line of politics.” He changed his mind. In the fall of 1914, he announced that he was running for mayor. A large advertisement in Times-Recorder on October 17, 1914, gave “Ten Good Reasons Why All Voters Should Vote For L.G. Council For Mayor.” It urged readers to “See that you are registered immediately and vote for L.G. Council for Mayor” and enthusiastically dubed him “‘The Man of The Hour.’” He won and served a single four-year term ending in 1918.

It was in the last three months of his last year in office that the worst wave of what had become known as “Spanish Flu” struck the country. Fragmentary sources suggest that Council deferred to Commissioner of Health, B.F. Bond. This was in some ways a reflection of the wider cultural climate in the United States at the time. President Woodrow Wilson, highly preoccupied by efforts to help end the First World War, was also silent during the pandemic. According to historian John Barry, “Wilson never made a public statement about the pandemic. Never.” A progressive, Southern Democrat, who spent his young life in Georgia, Woodrow Wilson may very well have been a kind of role model for small town politicians like Lee George Council, and the tone he set may have influenced action and inaction.

By 1919, when J.E. Sheppard succeeded Council as mayor, the acute wave of damage brought on by influenza had been done even if the chronic effects lasted well into the future. It was a difficult way to end his term in office. Council had great influence on the city of Americus during a time of great transformation in the South. He worked in a wide variety of ways to place himself at the center of the community, but when faced with a strange and deadly public health crisis, his business savvy and personal connections were of little use. It is possible his actions were a deliberate choice in the same vein as those made by politicians elsewhere, but it is also possible that this was a challenge that he could only meet wracked with personal uncertainty.