Last Sunday afternoon, a crowd filled the auditorium of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center to overflowing for a celebration of the life of Dr. Gayle Jackson, the center’s development director, who died Aug. 25 at age 72. The funeral service featured celebratory music, prayer, emotional remembrances from family members and friends, and the announced creation of a scholarship fund.
It happened to be Labor Day weekend, the weekend the Willow Hill Heritage Festival was held in past years, beginning in 2011. The festival has often featured a prayer breakfast and debuts of museum exhibits on Saturday and a Gospel Extravaganza on Sunday. But with Jackson – who held a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the Ohio State University and whose husband, Dr. Alvin Jackson, and two of their four children are physicians – as its lead promoter, the festival in various years also included youth-oriented bicycle rides, basketball and soccer clinics, programs on healthy eating and exercise, health screenings and a survey of mothers about maternal health care.
Learning-related events she promoted as part of the festival included student oratorical contests, musical competitions and a Lego robotics demonstration.
Before the midpoint of Sunday’s service, Larry Lee Jr., a cousin of Alvin Jackson and a member of the Willow Hill Center’s board, and four other board members stood in front of the casket and faced the crowd. After some words of remembrance, Lee announced the creation of the Dr. Gayle Latricia Jackson Scholarship Fund.
“Gayle loved the youth and education so much,” Lee said in a follow-up interview. “As I said in my comments, long before they moved back to Georgia, they did the bus tour. They would take kids who otherwise may not even have thought about going to college and they would start in Ohio and travel all the way down to Florida, stopping at various colleges along the way, mostly historically black colleges.”
Lee said he will be making a substantial contribution this week and plans to make annual contributions. The board has a goal of creating an at least $100,000 endowment to invest and sustain annual scholarship awards, he said.
Born Gayle Latricia Martin in Baltimore, Maryland, she came to know and love Willow Hill, the Portal, Georgia area and their extended community through her husband, now the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center’s board president. Alvin Jackson had attended Willow Hill Elementary School and was one of the first African American students to graduate from Statesboro High School, going on to become a family practice physician and, for four years, director of Ohio’s Department of Health.
But family members during Sunday’s service noted that Gayle Jackson was the first “doctor” in the family. She earned her Ph.D. and later helped support her husband through medical school.
When the Jacksons lived in Columbus, Ohio, she led a youth group called the Pathfinders and managed a youth drum corps. After moving to Fremont, Ohio, she started several youth programs, including the Ace Mentoring Program, bringing community leaders to mentor at-risk high school students, and the African American College Club.
She also founded the Kente Cloth Draping Ceremony, which continues as an annual tradition in Fremont, to honor graduating high school students.
But over the years, Alvin and Gayle Jackson also made visits to Georgia to the area where he grew up.
Eventually, they became the leading founders of the Willow Hill Center, bringing together alumni of the school and descendants of its founding families, beginning with the group who purchased the extant, 1954 Willow Hill School building and its campus at auction in 2005.
Since then, the old school has been developed in part as a museum, spotlighting first the history of the Willow Hill School itself, from the original school’s founding by formerly enslaved people for their children in 1874, and expanding to document and interpret other aspects of the lives and culture of Black citizens of the region and its diaspora. Meanwhile, the “renaissance center” aspect has been targeted at improving education and health for residents of the Willow Hill community and beyond.
The Jacksons moved from Ohio to Savannah in 2015, in part to be closer to Willow Hill.
‘Beacon of light’
Bulloch County Commissioner Ray Mosley, who attended Willow Hill Elementary School and serves on the center’s advisory board, was another of the tribute speakers Sunday.
“Gayle was many things, but she was the leader of program development and she was always working in the background to see how to make Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center a beacon of light for the community,” he said in an interview. “She always wanted to see the plight of all people be improved, and especially the African American community.
“She was very concerned and spent a lot of effort to make sure people were introduced to different cultures, and especially that the kids got the most they could out of their education,” Mosley said.
After a 2020 COVID pandemic-related federal Institute of Museum and Library Services grant helped equip the Willow Hill campus and a new pavilion with broadband, Wi-Fi, computers and staff for outdoor learning, the center began hosting free summer youth programs.
This summer, in its second year, the center’s Techie Camp registered 50 local elementary and middle school students for four weeks of technology-related, hands-on learning activities. This project has garnered continued support from the Nordson Corporation Foundation.
Projects Jackson and other members of her family created at Willow Hill also created learning and research opportunities for university students and faculty.
Moya Alfonso, Ph.D., MPH, was an associate professor with the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern when she met Jackson. They cooperated for about five years, working with graduate students, and completed two community education and health assessments based at Willow Hill. The first addressed the needs of children and led to a presentation at an American Public Health Association annual conference.
“She was really concerned for the youth of the community and wanted to eventually develop some sort of health care center at Willow Hill. …,” Alfonso, who now lives in Alabama, recalled in phone interview. “I loved her. She was a good example of how to work with community, and she really, really cared.”
Heidi Altman, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern, has had at least seven or eight students, interested in museum work, complete internships at the Willow Hill Center, while “probably dozens” of students have done some work there in various ways, she said. Altman and Jackson became friends.
“Aside from her family, which was most important, the most important thing to her was making sure that people who didn’t have the advantages that other people have had a path forward. …,” Altman said. “To make things better for children was her primary focus.”
Jackson had received a kidney transplant three years ago. Her health worsened earlier this year as a result of renewed kidney dysfunction, family members said.
The “Homegoing Celebration” section of the website www.willowhillheritage.org includes information on how to donate in memory of Jackson, and the center’s Facebook page carries a video of the service. Checks intended for the scholarship fund should note it in the memo line, Lee said.