by Larry Upthegrove
William Arnold Hemphill was born on May 5, 1842 and was raised near the University of Georgia campus in Athens. He was educated at his hometown university, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1861, and just in time to go to war for the Confederacy. Despite being wounded in the head at Gettysburg in July of 1863, he survived the war and was able to achieve the rank of Colonel for his leadership abilities.
At war’s end, William returned to his hometown to become an educator, but the lure of activity in Atlanta attracted him in 1867. In 1868, he became the business manager for Carey Wentworth Styles and James Anderson, who had just bought out the Atlanta Daily Opinion and re-named it The Constitution. (Ed. Note: the state was under military government at that time, and one of the goals of the paper was to advocate for constitutional government to return to Georgia.) Hemphill went to work and was able to get the fledgling newspaper on sound financial footing.
After six months, Styles sold his interest to Anderson, who would become Hemphill’s father-in-law and who installed William as principal owner, a position he held until 1901. In 1876 Evan P. Howell bought an interest in the paper and became its president and editor-in-chief. Howell excelled at production, with Hemphill handling the paper’s business affairs. Together, they soon had the Constitution to a quality level unmatched by any other publication in the south, especially with the staff additions of Henry Grady, Joel Chandler Harris, and Georgia’s poet laureate, Frank L. Stanton.
By 1883, Hemphill had the money and opportunities to expand his business talents in other directions. He was one of the incorporators of the horse-drawn Fulton County Street Railroad, which was best known for its route from downtown to Ponce De Leon Springs, (present-day location of Ponce City Market). Later, the line was electrified and extended to the Virginia-Highlands area.
William became a City Councilman-at-large in 1887, the same year he began an unsuccessful banking career. The next few years he served as president of the board of education and became an alderman in 1889. The following year, still leading the Constitution, he won the mayoral election and began duties in January 1891.
During his tenure as mayor, the first building of what would become Grady Memorial Hospital was built at 36 Butler Street with 14 rooms. Also, during his time, he oversaw construction of the freshwater pumping station on the Chattahoochee River. Part of the 55 acres purchased for the associated reservoir included a street named for him, Hemphill Ave.
After leaving office, Mayor Hemphill suggested that Atlanta could stimulate growth by hosting what would become the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895. He served as the head of the Trinity Sunday School and the YMCA. He died suddenly on August 17, 1902 from injuries sustained in a fall. He now lies under the sweet soil of Historic Oakland Cemetery, across the walkway from Captain William Allen Fuller.
by Larry Upthegrove