by Robin Kemp

UPDATE 2 p.m. May 28: ADDS MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker comment

UPDATE 9:07 p.m.: ADDS photo of Pota E. Costen Trailblazer Award presentation

UPDATE 6:55 p.m.: County flags ordered to half-staff

2:46 p.m.: CLARIFIES elected to 4 terms

UPDATE 1:50 p.m.: ADDS comments from BOC; CCPD reax

Clayton County is in mourning and flags are flying at half-staff in memory of Clayton County District One Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory of Ellenwood.

A source told The Clayton Crescent that Gregory died early Thursday morning after a long battle with ovarian cancer.

The Clayton County Police Department headquarters posted cancellation notices on its meeting rooms as Chief Kevin Roberts, command staff, and officers offered support to Gregory’s husband, CCPD helicopter pilot Willie Davis Gregory, Jr., recently promoted to aviation manager and who met his future wife while showing her the department’s chopper.

BOC Chairman Jeff Turner ordered that flags at all administrative offices and buildings be lowered to half-staff “from this date until sunset on the day of interment in honor of Clayton County Board of Commissioners Vice Chairwoman/District 1 Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory, an outstanding leader, faithful servant, and citizen who died in service with unwavering dedication to the county and her constituents since 2007. Individuals, businesses, and other organizations are encouraged to join in this tribute.”

County politics

After getting her start in county politics by working on Wade Starr’s campaign for commissioner, Gregory herself was elected to four terms as District One commissioner. In January of this year, she was named vice-chair of the Board of Commissioners. Gregory brought the CROWN Act, which bans discrimination against people with Black hairstyles, before the board, which passed it in February.

Her biggest contribution, however, may have been her work as a member of the Roads and Recreation Committee, pushing for the 2003 Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) to fund state-of-the-art recreation centers throughout Clayton County.

An imposing presence on the Board of Commissioners and a tireless advocate for District One, Gregory’s absence at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners work session was jarring.

In 2018, Gregory told audience members at the NAACP Candidates’ Forum that “Clayton County is on the rise. Our building permits, money’s coming in, houses are being built. You see our values are going up.” She said that she had fought for updated zoning requirements and brought locals jobs with QuikTrip Kitchens and Castellini Company.

Gregory also was a big-hearted representative of her constituents. She cited her own experience as a single mother as the driving factor behind her push for SPLOST-funded recreation centers around the county.

She also insisted that the best way to get rid of dollar stores spreading through the county was by upgrading local housing stock. At a 2019 zoning hearing, while quizzing a prospective apartment complex developer, she said, “I believe this county is ripe for market-rate apartments to attract the younger generation of residents. They are not ready for home ownership but want a nice safe place to stay. On the other hand, if we allow income-based apartments, we continue to attract the dollar stores because the occupants have less disposable income.”

Gregory said that residents who can afford market-rate apartments “will also be able to support our local retail and businesses,” which in turn would increase revenues from local option sales taxes.

“She will be greatly missed” by many

“Commissioner Sonna Singleton-Gregory was passionate about serving the citizens of Clayton County and dedicated herself to enriching the lives of our young people through education and community service,” said Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeffrey E. Turner. “She will be greatly missed.” 

Clayton County Chief Operations Officer Detrick Stanford added, “Commissioner Gregory epitomized what being a true public servant represents. Her legacy will continue to live through us all and we express our sincere condolences to the Gregory family and all those who support and love her.”  

Gregory’s constituent aide, LaVona Cooper said, “I have learned so much from Vice-Chairwoman Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory over the years. My trailblazer led by heart for her community and we will miss her dearly.” 

Rep. Sandra Scott (D-Rex) said, “Commissioner Sonna Gregory and I met at Travelers Rest Baptist Church. We began our political career by working on Wade Starr’s campaign for county commissioner. She and I decided that we would throw in our hat to run for office. We both ran and won our races. Sonna worked hard and she loved Clayton County but most of all she loved Rex, Georgia.  We used to talk often about what we could do to make things better for our community. She took a lot of beatings from people but she never let it get in the way of her mission. She was good, faithful, and true to all her constituents.  We both loved our seniors and children. I remember when she had to get a rec center on our side of town. We would talk about the different battles she had to fight, but she never gave up and didn’t stop until we had our rec center.  She had that same drive and determination about our brand new Senior Center. I am so glad that God allowed her to cut the ribbon on our new Senior Center. I am going to miss my friend dearly because we could relate to each other in this political warfare. I love you, Sonna. Rest easy, my friend, because you have left a great legacy.”

Rep. Rhonda Burnough (D-Riverdale) offered “condolences to Commissioner Gregory’s family, the Clayton County community and members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.”

The City of Forest Park “would like to extend its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory. We honor the life and legacy of service and dedication to the community that she leaves behind. Commissioner Gregory fought the good fight giving her all to her family and constituents that she wholeheartedly loved and served willingly and devotedly since 2007.”

MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker said, “MARTA joins Clayton County in mourning the loss of Commissioner Sonna Gregory and offers our deepest condolences to her loved ones and many friends. Commissioner Gregory prioritized representing her constituents and their interests and was the deciding vote on the Clayton Commission to call the Clayton referendum in 2014. However she felt personally about public transit and MARTA at the time, she believed that it was her duty to let the people vote. Commissioner Gregory and MARTA developed a strong relationship and worked together on issues impacting her district from identifying bus stops needing shelters and the new Operations and Maintenance facility. MARTA salutes her spirit and integrity and remains grateful for the impact she had on Clayton County.”

Former Morrow City Councilwoman Jeanell Bridges wrote, “I am grateful for your support and encouragement over the years! I will miss your beautiful smile!”

“Sonna Gregory, my friend and confidante, has completed her mission here,” NAACP Chair C. Synamon Baldwin wrote on Facebook. “Good night, Sister Queen.”

South Atlanta Magazine publisher Gerrian Hawes wrote, “She was my friend and I loved her. Rest well my Sonna Hodges Gregory.”

Clayton County District 1 Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory in her office. (Photo: Gerrian Hawes)

Newly-retired Arts Clayton Director Linda Crissey wrote, “My heart is just plain hurting along with many others. I so wanted to show her love one more time and did not know her transition was so close. I am thankful to have known you dear friend and am forever a better person. Rest in Peace thou good and faithful servant.”

Spiting cancer, cutting ribbons, making history

Gregory lived long enough to see the ribbon-cutting of the Northeast Senior Center, a project that she helped break ground on in 2018.

Clayton County District 1 Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory (right) with NAACP Chair C. Synamon Baldwin (left) and Congresswoman Nikema Williams (center) at the Northeast Senior Center ribbon-cutting, May 22, 2021.
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams (D-5) hugs Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory (right) at the Northeast Senior Center ribbon-cutting, May 22, 2021.

“I’ve made no secret that I’ve dealt with ovarian cancer, about the last five or six years,” Gregory said at last Saturday’s ribbon-cutting. “That’s why we’re here, at the Senior Center….for health and wellness. We want these ladies to know, these ladies can get it. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Our youngest victim was what, two years old? Two years old. I don’t know how old our oldest victim was. I know in the past few months, people were like, ‘Where’s Sonna? What’s going on?’ Some folks been talking. Come on, y’all. We gotta do better than this. We gotta do better than this. And as I said one night at a board meeting, if grace is not for one of us, it’s not for any of us. We all deserve that grace. And it’s time for us to stop the mess. So like I said, this is why we’re here, and I thank God for it.”

Gregory was open about her illness, eschewing wigs in recent months, and kept up her official duties until just days before her death. She was among dozens of other Black women elected to public office in Clayton County during a historic photo shoot in March:

Sonna Singleton Gregory (front row, fifth from left) poses with Black women who are elected officials in Clayton County. The historic photo shoot took place March 6, 2021. At least 41 Black women hold elected office in Clayton County. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

According to her bio, “Despite all of her listed accolades, Commissioner Singleton Gregory is most proud to wear the title of Cancer Survival.  In 2016, She was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and has since become an advocate for the Georgia Ovarian Cancer Alliance often participating in fundraising and awareness events.  Notably she has spoken to Emory University Medical students in an effort to help them understand the disease and its early symptoms as so many women are only diagnosed when treatment is too late.  She  is proud of her role with GOCA to expand the fight to bring awareness of ovarian cancer to the south side community with the incorporation of an awareness to program into the Clayton State University Nursing Curriculum.”

At the COVID-19 flag ceremony in Jonesboro, Gregory said she had not been feeling well enough to respond to e-mails lately. Despite her failing health, she found the strength to show up for the families of Clayton County’s COVID-19 victims, sporting a red beret and standing tall at the podium in one of her last official public appearances.

Clayton County District 1 Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory (right) takes the mic from State Rep. Sandra Scott (left) during the COVID-19 White Flag Ceremony on the lawn of the Historic Courthouse in Jonesboro. Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent
Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory bumps elbows at a historic photo shoot of Black women elected officeholders in Clayton County, March 2021. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

In recent months, Gregory expressed her frustration over the COVID-19 pandemic and urged residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“I got vaccinated because I care about all the people I work with: the parents, the students at my school, I care about my family, of course, and I am just–I care about us getting this under control. That’s why I got vaccinated. I hope you do, too,” she said in a county COVID-19 vaccination public service announcement in December 2020:

Country girl, single mom, powerhouse

Born in Snow Hill, North Carolina, a town of about 1,500 in Greene County, Sonna Hodges was one of 13 children. Her biography on the commission website noted Gregory was “proud of her rural roots of growing up on a farm feeding the pigs and working in the fields,” and that “hard work and values instilled in her by her late parents prepared her for the position of commissioner. She fondly remembers having to pick corn after school and working in tobacco during the summers.”

As a single mother, she took enormous pride in daughter Jordyn, an accomplished cellist who went to Howard University and Georgia State.

In 2007, she met her husband, Willie, when he flew her over tornado damage in District One. He recently told South Atlanta Magazine how the two met again in 2013 and a bold move:

After a chance encounter in 2013, Gregory was showing Commissioner Singleton the different parts of the helicopter. He told her about the craft from top to bottom but slipped in a surprising question in the middle of his talk. “Are you married?” he asked before sprinting on with his presentation before she could answer. They simply exchanged business cards and the commissioner left.

“I called her before she got out of the parking lot,” he said.

They were married within a year.

“She is a tremendous motivator,” said Gregory. “She is like a little momma. She got me to stick with my dream of flying helicopters and buying my own airplane.”

He travels with her to many community events as part of “Team Gregory.” She enlists him to answer public safety questions. He’s become more comfortable in his public appearances. “I go to a lot of events with her. She is on the phone taking calls a lot. But I’ve gotten used to it,” he said.

Gregory worked as a parent liaison in the Parent Resource Center at Mundy’s Mill High School. The center offers Parent Academy workshops and provides support to parents and connects them with health, job search, volunteer, and community resources.

Gregory graduated from Tennessee State University, an HBCU, and was a member of the East Point College Park Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory (left) forms the Delta symbol with Jonesboro City Councilwoman Dr. Donya Sartor (right). Both are members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory is presented with the Pota E. Costen Trailblazer Award by members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in 2018. (Photo: Robin Kemp)

In 2018, the sorority awarded Gregory with the Pota E. Costen Trailblazer Award, which is named in honor of the first Black woman elected to county public office in Fayette County in 2014, and who died of breast cancer a few months later.

Gregory is survived by her husband, Clayton County Police Department Aviation Manager and Tactical Flight Officer Willie Davis Gregory, Jr. and her daughter, Jordyn Speakman, a cellist and middle school orchestra teacher.

No funeral arrangements had been announced as of press time. Singleton was a member of Travelers Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Morrow and served as usher there.

The Clayton Crescent extends its deepest condolences to the family, friends, colleagues, and constituents of Commissioner Gregory. Check back for updates.