Lillian Gill dedicated her life towards community service, civil rights, and breaking racial barriers in the Grand Rapids community. The achievements of Lillian Gill’s community service and civil rights activism embody determination, compassion, and courage.
Soon after graduating from high school, Lillian married Robert Earl Gill and moved to the city, Tupelo, Mississippi which was destroyed by a tornado in the summer 1936. Remembering that storm, she said, “It was traumatic. It was the only time I ever saw whites and blacks together.” Because there was no work left for him, Lillian’s husband hopped a train with a friend and headed north. They ended up in Grand Rapids, MI. In 1944, at the age of 29, her husband Robert died.
Because it was wartime, she was hired at Hayes Manufacturing Co., repairing parachutes. From 1946 to 1959, Lillian did “day work” and took classes to learn about life insurance and underwriting. Then in 1959, she began selling life insurance full time for the next 22 ½ years. In 1982, Lillian became the first black woman in Grand Rapids and the entire state to retire from selling life insurance. In 1956, she became the first black agent—woman or man—for Richard De Vos and Jay Van Andel as they founded Amway.
In 1951, Lillian started volunteering for the NAACP and the Urban League. That year, during the presidential campaign, she was chosen to present flowers to Mrs. Harry Truman at a “whistle stop” in downtown Grand Rapids. Lillian served as vice president to three different presidents of the local chapter of the NAACP. Lillian made a number of firsts for black women in Grand Rapids. Lillian was the first black leader for Camp Fire Girls. Additionally, she and Lucille Skinner became the first black women to play golf in Grand Rapids, testing out a golf course on behalf of the NAACP. This exemplified her efforts in breaking down racial and gender barriers.
Lillian Gill was also the organizer and first president of the Grand Rapids Matron Council for the Order of the Eastern Star, an organization that was cherished by Mrs. Gill. Her service in the institution elevated her to the elected position of Illustrious Grand Matron (Supreme), and she also served as the Educational Director and National Sovereign of Stars for the International Masons.
Lillian Gill received countless awards based on her activist and community service achievements, which include the National Award of Sojourner Truth from the Negro Business and Professional Women group in 1971, and her name can be found in the 1977 book, Notable American Citizens.
Her other volunteer service included playing the organ for 15 years for her church choir and acting as president of the Sunday School Congress for the District of Michigan for 32 years. Lillian was also a volunteer “liaison for schools,” helping parents whose children had dropped out of school. Among her many awards were the 1986 Giant Award, for her religious service, and the A. C. Talbott Award, for her role as a school liaison.
This biography is adapted from a summary of a transcript of an oral history interview with Lillian Gill. Learn more about Grand Rapids women’s oral histories here.
This biography also contains content from the Winter 2008 GGRWHC Newsletter by Pamela VandenBerg
“Lillian Gill.” Grand Rapids Press, September 18, 2014. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/name/lillian-gill-obituary?id=36624594.