Remembering Phyllis Jackson
- Published: July 29, 2020
Yellow Springs has lost a treasure.
Church members, family, friends and well-wishers gathered outside Central Chapel AME Church on Saturday morning, July 18, to pay final respects to Phyllis Lawson Jackson, 95. A fifth-generation resident of Yellow Springs, Jackson died on July 11 after a long and rich life in the village.
The memorial service was held in the parking lot of Central Chapel to observe physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. About six weeks prior, the church had hosted a graduation celebration for Central Chapel teenagers in the same lot. Jackson, despite her age and the heat of the season, took part.
“She attended everything. Whatever was going on — she was there,” friend and fellow church member Sharon Perry said in a recent interview.
“Her presence was everywhere,” Perry added.
The village’s pride, love and sense of loss were palpable at Saturday’s memorial and in interviews the News conducted with a few of the many Yellow Springs residents whose lives Jackson — widely known as Mrs. Phyllis or Mrs. Jackson — touched and uplifted.
Reflecting on Jackson last Saturday, Yellow Springs native and local educator John Gudgel described her as the community’s historian and conscience. With her quiet yet forceful presence, she exemplified the adage “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” he said.
She spoke “softly but sometimes sternly,” he added, to laughs and murmurs of agreement from listeners. Like others attending the memorial, Gudgel had known Jackson as a village “mother” and respected elder since his birth.
Jackson’s life of service and deep knowledge of her community’s history are among the lasting gifts she gave to Yellow Springs, Gudgel said.
“She was so much about caring for our community,” he said.
And he evoked her “deadpan wit,” which caught those who didn’t know her well by surprise. She joked with such a straight face that people didn’t always know how to react, he said.
Kevin McGruder also spoke at Saturday’s memorial, recalling that he met Jackson soon after arriving in Yellow Springs in 2012 to teach history at Antioch College. A shared love of history and their attendance at Central Chapel, where Jackson had been a member since 1943, brought them together, he said.
McGruder emphasized Jackson’s pivotal role in uncovering, preserving and transmitting local history, especially Black history, through research, stories and written accounts.
“Phyllis Jackson was our griot,” he said, referring to the keeper of history in parts of West Africa.
Jackson’s passion for history began early, as did her awareness that Black history was often forgotten or ignored. As a ninth-grader at Bryan High School, Jackson discovered that her history teacher had never heard of Crispus Attucks, a Black man considered the first American killed in the Revolutionary War. She was “disappointed,” McGruder said.
That omission may have spurred her to recover and record the history of Yellow Springs, especially that of its Black residents.
Among the publications to her credit is a history of Wheeling Gaunt, the former enslaved person who went on to become a man of wealth and influence in Yellow Springs, donating to the Village the land that is now Gaunt Park. All subsequent scholarship about Gaunt draws on her groundbreaking research, according to McGruder.
Jackson also served as an editor of the “Blacks in Yellow Springs” encyclopedia of local history, initiated by local nonprofit The 365 Project to compile stories of the ordinary and extraordinary Black citizens who have contributed to the economic, social, cultural and spiritual vitality and diversity of Yellow Springs. Jackson wrote entries for the encyclopedia, as well as serving on its editorial board.
She was “really pleased” when the first edition of the encyclopedia came out earlier this year, McGruder noted in a recent interview with the News.
Jackson and another of the encyclopedia’s editors, Isabel Newman, also in her 90s, liked to joke that “we’ll be long gone before this comes out,” he recalled, adding that their humor underscored the scope and significance of the endeavor.
Jackson was a social historian, interested in the lives and activities of everyday people. According to McGruder, social history is especially relevant — and revolutionary — in the present moment, when Black Lives Matter protests seek to fully register the presence and value of Black people in America.
White people “don’t see us as fully human actors living rich, interesting lives,” McGruder said of African Americans. As one example, when it comes to looking at Black neighborhoods, “people often see the exterior … they don’t understand the relationships and the institutions that people are building that give their lives meaning,” he reflected.
Jackson intimately understood those relationships and institutions. She documented them, and she lived them.
Deep local roots
Phyllis Lawson Jackson was born on Sept. 26, 1924, in a house at the corner of High and Dayton streets. It was one of three homes she lived in over the course of her life, according to previous News accounts. She also lived on Lincoln Court and Stafford Street, her final residence of many years.
She had deep roots in Yellow Springs, tracing her personal history back to her father’s great-grandmother, a former enslaved person who came to the village in 1863. The Lawson family distinguished itself, with Jackson’s brother, James Lawson, becoming the village’s mayor from 1965 to 1974, and other family members playing important roles here.
Jackson graduated from Bryan High School, but attending college was financially out of reach for the bright young woman, despite her writing skills and love of history. She went to work as a clerk typist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and met her future husband there, Theodore Jackson. She worked at the base for 38 years.
At Saturday’s memorial, Gudgel speculated that Jackson was a “hidden figure” at Wright-Patterson, with more knowledge and intelligence than her white bosses. The term references the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” about the role of Black female mathematicians in the 1960s space program. Locally, Jackson was among several Black residents honored as “hidden figures” in Yellow Springs as part of a recent project at Mills Lawn School on that theme.
During their years together in the village, the Jacksons raised two children, Kevin and Kimberly, and were active in many areas of village life.
Villager Nan Harshaw, a little younger than Jackson with children about the same age, valued her as a person “you could rely on” who had a strong sense of “fair play, and wasn’t quick to judge.”
“When she made a statement, she gave it careful thought,” Harshaw said.
As a young woman in the 1940s, Jackson was a member of the Victorettes, a group of young Black women from Yellow Springs who raised money, and raised spirits, during World War II through vocal concerts, youth dances and community service.
Members of the group remained close throughout their lives, keeping up friendships and service projects well into their elder years. Jackson organized an annual party for the women and their families until about five or six years ago, when she asked Perry, whose mother-in-law, Marie Payton, was a Victorette, to carry on the tradition.
Perry was honored by the invitation. “And I did not dare say ‘no,’” she said, with a laugh.
She and Karen McKee, with help from Tanya Lawson, Locksley Orr and Perry’s husband, David, have organized parties each year with surviving Victorettes and their families.
Among these is Dorothy Allen, who at 96 is six months older than Jackson — a subtle age difference that, in later years, led to endless jokes.
“She always said, ‘You’re older than I am,’” Allen recalled.
Speaking with the News last week, Allen said she dearly missed her lifelong friend.
“I loved her,” she said simply.
The two often went out to eat at the Golden Corral after church. And they spoke frequently on the phone, the last time about a month ago.
‘She gave her heart’
Church meant Central Chapel AME Church on South High Street, and it was at the heart of Jackson’s life. More than 150 years old, Central Chapel is among the village’s oldest religious institutions, and historically one of several hubs of Black life in Yellow Springs.
For as long as anyone can remember, Jackson arrived at church 15 minutes early and sat in the same pew. She was a regular churchgoer — “I’m an every Sunday person,” she told the News several years ago. She was generous to the church with her time, talent and treasure, according to Perry, who noted that Jackson donated a new piano and organ to Central Chapel after the death of her husband in 2012. She was also the formal and informal archivist for the church, sharing stories and helping to compile a history of Central Chapel for its landmark 150th anniversary in 2016.
And alongside several other local women, she was active in Friends for Payne, a philanthropic organization that supports Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce.
New pastor Rev. Morné Meyer, who took the pulpit at Central Chapel last October, reflected in a recent interview that he had relied on Jackson for church history and community information, as well as something harder to define.
Meyer described how he would look to her from the pulpit to see whether he was delivering “a good enough sermon” — or one that didn’t quite hit the mark.
“Her face gave me the stamp of approval, or not,” he said, laughing.
In his eulogy at Jackson’s graveside service earlier last week, Meyer recalled the “quiet, well-groomed, well-dressed, calm, smiling and always present woman seated in her pew Sunday after Sunday.” She was a source of wisdom and strength, he said.
And that’s how many in Yellow Springs will remember her.
Asked what Jackson meant to her personally and to the village, Perry responded, “She meant history, love and being a pillar of the community.”
In recent years, the community honored Jackson with a range of awards, including a Senior Leader Award in 2013 by the Greene County Council on Aging, an induction that same year into the Greene County Women’s Hall of Fame and a 2019 Martin Luther King Day Peacemaker Award. Locally, Jackson was active with the Yellow Springs Senior Center, Yellow Springs Historical Society and the Women’s Park, co-authoring the book “Celebrating Women: The Women’s Park of Yellow Springs.” The News wrote several articles about her over the years, including a profile as part of the paper’s “Elder Stories” series in 2016.
At Saturday’s memorial, Jackson’s legacy was already visible. A group of about 50 youth and adults attending the village’s weekly anti-racism rally, which coincided with the time of Jackson’s memorial, marched silently to the church, and stood with signs and banners, some of them specifically honoring Jackson.
Jackson’s son, Kevin, reflecting on the memorial service this week, said he found the involvement of the marchers “particularly touching,” given the youth and ideals of many involved.
Local activist Bomani Moyenda organized Saturday’s showing of respect, having grown up with Jackson’s children, and having known and admired her.
“Her Black life matters to many in this community,” he said, touching on a theme of the anti-racism rally.
And this community mattered to her.
“I have always thought of Mrs. Jackson as one of Yellow Springs’ Most Remarkable Elders,” Karen McKee wrote in an email to the News this week. Jackson was her mother’s second cousin, and a constant presence during McKee’s childhood.
“I was amazed at the wealth of recall she had about the history of individual families and public and private events that took place in her beloved community,” McKee wrote.
She added, “Mrs. Jackson’s life was anchored in dignity. She gave her heart to this community and it is an honor to help keep her memory alive.”