Looking back: Audrey Boone Tillman receives the 2017 SISTERS Inc. Women of Courage Award
Ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things.
That was the theme Monday at the 10th annual Rosa Parks Women of Courage Breakfast held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center.
Sponsored by Sisters Inc., the charity outreach arm of the Gamma Tau Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the event drew about 1,200 people. The crowd was predominantly female.
In addition to recognizing Parks’ act of courage, the group also highlighted the accomplishments of three local trailblazers. The women honored were Ann Caggins, Audrey Boone Tillman and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, each of whom spoke to the audience.
Caggins has been active in the community both as a human resources professional and volunteer leader over the years. She has held leadership positions at the Columbus Times Newspaper, Jack and Jill of America Inc., the Society for Human Resource Management Columbus Chapter, and the Liberty Theatre and Cultural Centre.
Caggins also is the wife of Retired Col. Myles B. Caggins Jr., and the mother of two adult children who reside in the Washington, D.C., area.
In her speech, Caggins said life hasn’t been easy, and it takes courage to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
“Being distracted by things in the world that we can do nothing about is a waste of our time,” she said. “What you can do is bloom where you’re planted.”
Speaking from personal experiences, she said: “I’ve felt burdened in my lifetime, and I’ve felt confused, and I’ve felt lonely, and I’ve felt afraid. And I thank God for all of those experiences because, like Mrs. Parks, they helped me to know myself.”
Tillman, executive vice president and general counsel at Aflac, joined the company in 1996 as a member of the legal department, where she was the first black attorney hired by the company. She was promoted to second vice president in 1997, and then to vice president and senior associate counsel in the legal division in 2000. Her work as legal counsel to the human resources division, led to her promotion to vice president of human resources a year later. In 2008, she was promoted to direct Aflac’s corporate services. Her promotion to executive vice president was the first for an African-American in the company’s history.
Tillman is a member of the executive committee of the Corporate Counsel Section of the Georgia Bar, and she serves as tri-chair of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce Regional Prosperity Initiative, Columbus 2025. She is a member of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. and currently serves as president of the Columbus chapter.
She was recently named to the National Law Journal’s 2016 50 Outstanding General Counsel. In 2016, Ethisphere listed her among “Attorneys Who Matter” for ethical business practices on a global stage.
In her speech, she spoke of the multitude of people who poured into her life over the years. She thanked Aflac for the opportunities she has been awarded, and her parents, husband, mother-in-law and her three children for their support.
Tillman said she grew up in southwest Atlanta and attended all-black neighborhood schools from kindergarten to 12th grade. She said the love and high expectations that she received from family and others around her, laid the foundation for her success.
“I don’t have any extraordinary talents or gifts beyond the fact that I recognized opportunities, I seized expectations and I did my very best to meet them,” she said. “... Any little girl can do that if those ground rules are set.”
Tomlinson moved to Columbus in 1994 from Atlanta and married Wade “Trip” Tomlinson, a local attorney. For 16 years, she practiced with the law firm of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison and Norwood LLC., where she specialized in complex litigation and was the firm’s first female partner. From 2006 to 2010, she served as executive director of Midtown, Inc., a nonprofit community renewal organization.
In 2010, Tomlinson was elected as the first female mayor of Columbus with 68 percent of the vote. She was re-elected to a second term in 2014, with a 63 percent margin. She has five times been named to Georgia Trend’s 100 Most Influential Georgians, and she holds a National Security Secret Clearance with the Department of Defense.
In 2015, Tomlinson led an effort that saved her undergraduate alma mater, Sweet Briar College. She is currently chairwoman of the college’s board of directors.
In her speech, Tomlinson said she was a very shy child growing up. She surprised her mother when she defended a girl who had been pushed down by a bully on the way home from school.
“I knew right then that I had been given a gift; that there was something about injustice that I could not stand,” she said. “And that if it had to be, use me as a shield for those that aren’t big enough, loud enough, haven’t had opportunities enough to do it for themselves.”
Tomlinson said it’s easy to become debilitated by fear, but she encouraged the audience to be brave.
“In the name of Rosa Parks, we say today, that we’ll choose hope over fear, and we’ll choose faith over doubt, and we will choose love over hate,” she said.