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How Bunnie Jackson-Ransom Changed Atlanta

We spoke with Black residents across the city who knew Ms. Bunnie about her passing and lasting legacy.

Burnella “Bunnie” Jackson-Ransom, known as Atlanta’s first Black first lady, passed away on Feb. 2 at the age of 82. (Carlos York)

Mother. Businesswoman. Leader. Author

These are the words used to remember and describe the legacy of Burnella “Bunnie” Jackson-Ransom. The former first lady of Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, died Feb. 2 at the age of 82.

Originally from North Carolina, Jackson-Ransom moved to Atlanta in 1965, where she embarked on a nearly 60-year legacy as one of Atlanta’s most notable businesswomen. She built her own public relations firm, firstClass inc, and was an advocate for the city’s arts community. She helped guide the careers of musicians such as SOS Band, Cameo, and Larry Blackmon. The woman known as “Ms. Bunnie” authored several books, including her personal memoir, Memoirs of a Life Well Lived: The First First Lady from S.W.A.T.S.

Jackson-Ransom was also an active leader among civic organizations, like the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, the metro Atlanta coalition of 100 Black Women, and the National Council of Negro Women. 

“I will forever remember our former First Lady for her lively spirit and the boundless energy she brought to all that she undertook,” Mayor Andre Dickens said in a statement. “Bunnie loved this city and we loved her back.”

In light of Jackson-Ransom’s passing, Capital B Atlanta spoke with locals who knew her, and others who were inspired by how she shaped the city.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Genia Billingsley, community organizer, Eco Action 

I just remember the pride we felt when Maynard was elected as the first Black mayor, and we looked up to Bunnie. She wasn’t just first lady, she was a businesswoman and a leader in her own right. We also have her to thank for our NPU system in Atlanta. As a community engager, I attend the NPU meetings with honor, and that’s because of Bunnie Jackson.

Odie Donald II, chief of staff for Mayor Andre Dickens 

Growing up in Atlanta, we all knew the standard of excellence that was set forth by former Mayor Maynard and first lady Bunnie Jackson. When it comes to her legacy in our history books [nationally], Ms. Bunnie is easily the reason why we have Michelle Obama. The Jackson family was our view of Black love before social media here in Atlanta. 

However, it wasn’t until the establishment of the city of South Fulton in 2017 that I was able to witness the genius of Ms. Bunnie. Her marketing, branding, and influence set the tone for the naming of the new city through the citizen-approved name “Renaissance.” 

However, the use of “the city of South Fulton” took the lead instead. Today, Ms. Bunnie’s branding and marking framework serves as the inspiration for the current logo and city branding. Not to mention, she was the driving force behind The National Conference of Black Mayors, Cameo, and SOS Band. She is legendary.

H. Michael Harvey, former president, Cascade Homeowners Association

One Sunday in the early 1990s, a community group met with developers who wanted to develop the Cascade Road/I-285 corridor. The group spent a long time advocating for a white tablecloth sit-down restaurant in the area. Bunnie arrived towards the end of the meeting due to a previous engagement. She stood up impassively and made a case for restaurants in the development. When she spoke, it summed up and clearly stated what the group had spent two hours trying to get across to the developers.

Ms. Bunnie Jackson-Ransom was steeped in the Atlanta ethos. When I think of her, I see her as the consummate publicist who added value to her business, civic, and religious clients by wrapping their projects around the “Atlanta Way.” 

Kamille D. Whittaker, journalist 

I was associate editor at Atlanta Tribune for over a decade, and I can’t remember a single week going by without me or my editor hearing directly from Ms. Bunnie about any one of her clients that she felt should be featured on our pages. 

She would always start the call by saying her full name — “Hello? Yes, this is Bunnie Jackson-Ransom”— as if we could ever mistake her voice, her light, for anyone else. 

Seeing her deep influence on the pages of the 30-plus year-old Tribune and being able to talk shop with her weekly was a special kind of honor.

Noah Washington, communications writer, Fanbase 

Ms. Bunnie Jackson, she was like Jacqueline Kennedy of Atlanta. She knew Atlanta history and was not only one of most intelligent women in the city, but I would go as far as to say one was the most intelligent woman to ever live. 

Unfortunately, I really wanted to speak with her about a documentary that we were trying to get off the ground back in 2021, but due to COVID restrictions, it became very difficult to try to do it. So I’m saddened that I missed the opportunity to personally hear her story and to talk to her, but her life and legacy will live on in Atlanta for generations to come. 

The documentary was about the 1970s Atlanta art movement that was happening. During that time period, Maynard Jackson had hired two people, John Eden, and John Little, to lead the Arts Initiative. That basically helped grow Atlanta into the art metropolis that it is today. She definitely has a substantial say in turning Atlanta into an art capital.

Demetrius Myatt, district director, Fulton County District 4

I was a freshman in college at Oglethorpe University, and [interning] at the King Center. She did a lot of public relations for the King Center and particularly during the King holiday. I met Ms. Bunnie during that time, and we worked on a lot of projects. 

One thing that stood out to me about Miss Bunnie — because the love I have for both of my grandmother’s and the love that they had for me — was her interactions with her grandson. She loved her grandchildren. She would have Luke around her all the time. And that was kind of like the icebreaker for Ms. Bunnie and I. 

As it relates to Atlanta, she broke barriers for first ladies coming along. In her era, as it relates to the country, I would say there would probably not be a Barack Obama if it not wasn’t a Maynard Jackson and Bunnie Jackson. Coleman Young, Harold Washington, Maynard Jackson — and their wives, and Ms. Bunnie included — arguably paved the way for Michelle Obama for the Obama family. So that would be her blueprint for America on American history. Representing being a first lady.  

Bem Joiner, founder, Atlanta Influences Everything 

My favorite story … she apparently was like a fan of SOS Band [before working with them]. Being the mayor’s wife at the time, she used to go to their shows and go backstage and was able to talk to them. She just kind of gave her opinion on what they should be called, making some suggestions on some other adjustments on how they should do things — her approach was just as a fan, but they listened in because she was the first lady of Atlanta. And then they stayed in contact, and she went to more shows. 

Eventually, the SOS Band decided to go in a different management direction, move to Atlanta and kind of use the network that was in Atlanta. What’s important to note is that the music scene at the time wasn’t as it is today. But what you did have is this powerful Black mayor’s wife kind of being able to open doors, make things happen. So, the SOS band moved to Atlanta. This leads from the SOS Band to Brick, which you know, Sleepy Brown’s father was a part of Brick. This kind of act started innocently from Ms. Bunnie being a fan with a point of view, and kind of set up the Atlanta music scene. And it was just Ms. Bunnie being Ms. Bunnie.

Carlos York, photographer and educator 

The first time I met Ms. Bunnie, our first encounter was through a really good friend of mine.

I was asked to come out and take some pictures for her. I knew of her, but I never met her. And we met probably two or three times afterwards. She booked me to do a photo shoot for her girlfriend’s bridge party. They hadn’t seen each other since the pandemic. And every moment that we met, it was always a learning experience. That was something that I always learned and absorbed from her, and she was a sweet, beautiful, young woman who had a lot of wisdom.

When you think of Atlanta, when you think of the things that have transpired in the past 30 years here in this city, you cannot mention Atlanta without mentioning her name. She will always be remembered for her contributions to both Black and white. And I am going to sorely miss her. 

R. Candy Tate, chief culture officer, Culture Centers International

When I got my doctorate, I was working on interviews around Maynard, and the neighborhood [Bureau of Cultural Affairs] arts center. It became clear that I needed to talk to Bunnie. I had an opportunity to go to her house. Bunnie said, “Let me show you some of my history,” and there were platinum, gold records on the wall.  

Bunnie knew what she wanted to do. When I sat down with Bunnie to ask her about [the arts center], she shared the couple’s pillow talk. She gave [Maynard] the idea of creating the NPU system. I was just like, “Oh, wow. All this time, you know, he gets credit.” Bunnie was very much about family, community, serving in the role as first lady. But, she was an independent Black woman and had her own career, thoughts, and ideas.

Her marketing skills around getting the word out, what she was great at, was knowing people and connecting the dots. She was that person that knew the Black community and was the interface between Black and white [people] throughout Atlanta’s growing time period. 

Through the eyes of seeing and understanding the history of Bunnie Jackson-Ransom and in all that she did alongside and in support of her husband — and then on her own in her own right — makes me know that these Black women, that’s not just happening in the 21st century, that these Black women were always about getting it done.