Celestine Sibley – New Georgia Encyclopedia

Celestine Sibley, a renowned Southern author, journalist and syndicated columnist, reported for the Atlanta Constitution from 1941 to 1999. During her long career, she wrote more than 10,000 columns and numerous reports of astonishing scope, covering subjects as varied as politics and lime pie. Sibley was one of the most popular and longest-serving columnists in the Constitution, and his well-written, poignant essays on Southern culture have made him an icon in the South. Considered a legend of reporting by her colleagues, Sibley was also the accomplished author of nearly thirty books published between 1958 and 1997.

Celestine Sibley

Courtesy of Sibley Fleming

Youth and career

Celestine Sibley was born in Holley, Florida on May 23, 1914, to Evelyn Barber and Henry Colley. Sibley’s mother, later known as “Muv” in Sibley’s chronicle, left her father (although she never officially divorced her) and married Wesley Reeder Sibley, a lumberjack from Creola, in Alabama. Adopted by her stepfather at the age of seven, the young Celestine bears her surname and spent her childhood in Creola, a small town on the outskirts of Mobile. At the age of fifteen, Sibley, an ambitious student journalist at Murphy High School Hi Times, was hired as a weekend reporter at the Mobile press register. When she graduated in 1933, Sibley was offered her first paid full-time position at the Hurry. Covering everything from welfare to murder, the young journalist has gained invaluable experience in Hurrywhile her natural talent and attention to detail established her as a solid writer early in her career.

Meanwhile, Sibley married Hurry colleague and journalist James W. Little; the couple had three children together before dying at the age of forty-five. Sibley later married John C. Strong, who died in 1988.

In 1936 Sibley and Little moved to Pensacola, Florida. Sibley started writing for the Pensacola News-Journal and continued to cover all aspects of local news. In the summer of 1941, her husband accepted a position with the Associated Press in Atlanta and moved there with the family.

Atlanta years

Sibley began working at Atlanta Constitution July 21, 1941, assigned to the Federal Battalion. Less than six months later, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II (1941-45). The resulting staff burnout presented an unprecedented opportunity for Sibley – she became one of the first female editors at the Constitution, working under the tutelage of Ralph McGill, whom she would later describe as her mentor. Competent but restless in her newly assigned office position, Sibley still preferred to be a “member of the ground troops” with a natural inclination to cover stories from the streets.

Roosevelt and Sibley
Roosevelt and Sibley

Courtesy of Sibley Fleming

Sibley received her first column in 1944, which allowed her to spend more time with her children. Both a full-time reporter and a mother, Sibley was still poised to become a front-page reporter and courtroom reporter, covering the “Three Governors Controversy” in 1946 as well as numerous high-profile trials. In 1947, her investigative coverage of police and political corruption surrounding a murder case resulted in the acquittal of convicted murderer Floyd Woodward, and she later received NBC’s Pall Mall Big Story Award for Best Story of the week, for his coverage of the case. The following year, she covered the murder trial of John Wallace, which later became nationally known through the publication of Margaret Anne Barnes’ bestselling book. Murder in Coweta County (1976), as well as the adaptation of the book into a TV movie in 1983 with Johnny Cash and Andy Griffith.

Hartsfield and Sibley
Hartsfield and Sibley

Courtesy of Sibley Fleming

In the early 1950s, Sibley worked for five years as a Hollywood correspondent for the Sunday Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, traveling to Los Angeles, California, and interviewing movie stars and filmmakers. Her profiles, which she later called “fluff stories”, included celebrities such as Clark Gable, Walt Disney and Jane Russell. “Pulp stories” also became an infamous part of Sibley’s versatile writing career during this time. As another creative way to support his family, Sibley moonlighted as a True Confession and real detective journalist, selling stories with such shocking titles as “I wanted to die” and “I was a junkie”.

His short-lived pulp career was eventually replaced by a long-term book career, beginning with the publication of The evil heart (1958), the first book in Kate Mulcay’s mystery series. For nearly forty years Sibley continued to publish books in a variety of genres, including Peachtree Street, United States (1963), a portrait of Atlanta; Dear store (1967), a history of Rich’s department store; A place called Sweet Apple (1967), reflections on the restoration of his log home in Roswell; Jincey (1978), his first novel; got funny (1988), his memoirs; and additional installments in the Kate Mulcay series. In 1982, his novel Children, My Children won the inaugural Townsend Prize for Children’s Fiction.

Celestine Sibley
Celestine Sibley

Courtesy of Sibley Fleming

From 1958 to 1978, Sibley covered Georgia politics, the courts, and the legislature, including Georgia’s forty-day Annual General Assembly, which became one of his favorite assignments. Sibley’s legislative reports were considered fair, impartial and accessible to the general public. During those years, she also reported on the trial of James Earl Ray, who was convicted of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the 1976 presidential election, in which Jimmy Carter became the first elected Georgian President of the United States. In appreciation for his years of excellent political reporting, the House of Representatives voted in 2000 to name his press gallery at the State Capitol in honor of Sibley.

Syndicated columnist

Although Sibley spent most of her career as a journalist, she is perhaps best remembered as a syndicated columnist for the Atlanta Constitution. Even after retiring from reporting in the late 1990s, Sibley continued to spend the majority of her days writing books, as well as continuing to chronicle life in the south. In 1990, she received the Ralph McGill Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. She also received two honorary degrees during her career, one in 1993 from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and another in 1996 from Emory University in Atlanta. A few months before his death, Sibley received the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Lifetime Achievement Award.

Celestine Sibley
Celestine Sibley

Courtesy of Sibley Fleming

Sibley died of cancer at the age of eighty-five on August 15, 1999. She continued to work until the final weeks before her death, with her last regular job. Constitution column published July 25, 1999. She was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Georgia Women of Achievement in 2010.

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