Pioneering A.M.E. pastor, sister of jazz legend
By Maureen O’Donnell firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @suntimesobits July 26, 2013 11:06PM
Rev. Lucille Jackson, a longtime, pioneering Maywood minister.
Updated: August 28, 2013 6:19AM
When Rev. Lucille Jackson co-founded her church in 1971, it was uncommon to find one run by not just one — but two female co-pastors.
More than 40 years later, J.W. James African Methodist Episcopal Church is still going strong at 6th and Madison in Maywood.
The Rev. Jackson, 80, died Tuesday at her Oak Park home.
“It was extremely unusual in our denomination, that is over 100 years old, that they were the first co-founders and the first team of women to do this sort of work,” said the church’s current pastor, Garry S. Mitchell, son of the Rev. Jackson’s original co-pastor, the Rev. Esther James Mitchell.
The women also co-founded a grade school, James Memorial Christian Academy, that operated adjacent to the church from about 1982 to 2006. The Rev. Jackson taught reading and English there for 24 years. Its students later went on to graduate from schools including Stanford University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and Texas A&M.
Rev. Jackson was born in a churchgoing, music-loving family, that included her little sister, Gloria Lewis Johnson, and her younger brother, Ramsey Lewis, the famed jazz pianist and composer. “In the Lewis family,” Mitchell said, reading from a family history, “going to church was not an option, but a way of life.”
Their father, Ramsey Lewis Sr., was director of the gospel chorus at Wayman A.M.E. Church, 509 W. Elm. “Dad took us to the Regal Theater and to the Chicago Theatre to see live stage shows with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat ‘King’ Cole,” the Rev. Jackson said in a commentary written for one of her brother’s record labels, Narada.
She recalled that her father and her mother, Pauline, enrolled her and young Ramsey in piano lessons when they were children.
But “one hour of practice at the piano was truly painful for me!” she told writer Anne Aufderheide in a 2007 interview with the online jazz magazine www.smoothviews.com. “Not so for Ramsey. He completed the beginner’s book months before I did. The teacher soon recognized that Ramsey was definitely gifted.”
“It’s like a light has gone out in our hearts, yet we know we’ve gained an angel,” said Ramsey Lewis. “Lucille meant the world to me and Gloria — she was a wonderfully supportive sister to us, and a loving, strong mother to Paula. She impacted us and so many others through her ministry at J.W. James.”
When she was growing up, the Rev. Jackson’s family lived on the North Side. They worshipped at Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd and Indiana, until they began attending Wayman A.M.E. At that time, A.M.E. churches “were a little more open” to women ministers, Mitchell said.
“As she grew up in that environment,” Mitchell said, “she was able to clarify, in her mind and in her heart, the call to ministry that she was hearing.”
She attended Schiller Elementary, Wells High School and Wright Junior College. She earned a master’s degree at Concordia University, said a church spokeswoman. After doing mission work in Africa, the Rev. Jackson received an honorary doctorate of divinity degree from Monrovia College in Liberia, Mitchell said.
Her fiery sermons were delivered in a stentorian voice, a bit like that of Democratic Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a famed orator.
“Lucille was one of the most gifted orators I’ve ever heard, and the fact that she was spreading God’s word made the message even stronger,” Ramsey Lewis said. “She would often joke that while Gloria and I were the family musicians, she didn’t quite inherit that gene, but felt free in worship to ‘make a joyful noise unto the Lord’ in her own special way.’ ”
In 2005, he recorded a well-reviewed gospel CD at her church, “With One Voice.” “The sanctuary was filled with worshippers praising God and Ramsey mentioned that it was a like a real revival meeting!” the Rev. Jackson said in a piece written for the Narada record label.
The CD gave a new spin to classics like “Oh Happy Day.” “They took a standard hymn, ‘Pass Me Not,’ and started off in the traditional manner,” Mitchell said, “and then merged it into a modern gospel, contemporary jazz rendition, and it’s a song that our choir still sings to this very day.”
She loved Christmas, and put in a lot of work writing the church’s annual holiday production, which often connected the stresses of modern life to the troubles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. “She tied in not having enough rent money, and the true gift was the gift of Christ, refocusing the children from the material gifts to the birth of our savior,” Mitchell said.
Her marriage ended in divorce. Afterward, she would say — in a lighthearted but determined way — “There’s no [man] to pay the rent at my house, or the tuition for my daughter. I depend solely on God.” Her daughter, Paula Ann Jackson, attended Rush University College of Nursing and earned a master’s degree, a church spokeswoman said.
Rev. Jackson worked until 2008, when she reached the A.M.E. church’s mandatory retirement age of 75, a church spokeswoman said.
She will lie in state from 2-5 p.m. Sunday at J.W. James A.M.E. Church at 907 S. 6th Ave., Maywood, with a celebration of life planned from 5-7 p.m. On Monday, refreshments will be served at the church at 9 a.m., with her homegoing celebration scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m.