Living history at Charleston's YWCA
Executive director for 36 years, Christine Jackson didn't want the job at first
Christine Jackson, former executive director of the YWCA of Greater CharlestonChristine Jackson has seen a lot.The executive director of the YWCA of Greater Charleston for an astounding 36 years, she was one of the leaders of Charleston's female and black communities while Charleston and America were transformed by the civil rights movement. She was connected to the drive for racial equality through her family, too: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the husband of her cousin and schoolmate.
Her journey began elsewhere in the South.
She was born in Marion, Alabama, attending school and church with her cousin Coretta Scott, who married Dr. King in the mid-1950s. Their grandfather led the church; when he died, her father took over, picking up people around town and driving them to church in a Model T Ford he had transformed into a pickup truck.
She went on to earn a college degree in home economics, an unusual achievement for a black woman in those days. Along the way, she babysat and cooked for a number of white families in the community, interacting with a wide variety of people in Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina—experience that would serve her well when she later took on the post of the Charleston YWCA executive director.
"I always had a positive attitude toward the white community," she remembers. "I'm a country girl from Alabama and yet I had all these positive experiences with the white families there. They were very good people. When I went away to college, one white woman from Mississippi was hugging me and crying because I was going away to college. She was so genuine."
A sewing class leads to great things
Her future lay in Charleston, though she couldn’t know that then.
She married the Reverend Dr. E. L. Jackson, and the two found themselves in South Carolina after he was fired in Alabama for marching for civil rights with Dr. King. Ms. Jackson taught home economic classes to rural families and girls from the local 4H program through the Clemson University Extension Service.
Then her colleagues at the Clemson University Extension Service attended an event in Columbia, as did her former associates at the Tuskegee, Alabama extension service… and the Charleston YWCA. Word got around that the Charleston YWCA was looking for a black home economics demonstrator, and her name came up.
"I didn’t want to accept the job until I knew my husband could get a job in Charleston," Ms. Jackson recalls. As fortune would have it, he was able to get a job on Johns Island as a public school teacher, and she accepted the home economics post. The couple moved to Charleston in 1963, and she began teaching a sewing class at the YWCA.
That sewing class would turn out to be pivotal.
When the then-executive director of the Charleston YWCA retired, Ms. Jackson recalls, "The program director remembered me teaching the sewing class, and she recommended me."
"You know Charleston had to be different"She did not want the job.
In 2009 the Post & Courier wrote about her reluctance to take charge of what was then a segregated institution. Her husband encouraged her, suggesting she might be able to change it.
"The YWCA on George Street was a YWCA and we [on Coming Street] were a branch," she explains, noting the George Street organization was one of the oldest YWCAs in America at that time. "The YWCA on George Street was the white YWCA and the Coming Street YWCA was the black YWCA."
As it turns out, Ms. Jackson didn't have to desegregate Charleston’s YWCA.
"The YWCA on George Street was committed to remaining totally segregated," she says. She laughs wryly. "You know Charleston always had to be different."
She doesn’t remember what caused the national YWCA to disaffiliate it, but she does remember the George Street organization voting to change its name to the Christian Family Y. Three white women on the board of the George Street organization left to become part of the YWCA on Coming Street. "Eventually they [the Christian Family Y] ceased to exist."
Ms. Jackson took the reins of the new Charleston YWCA in 1966, two years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act and just one year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. "A group of retired black teachers surrounded me. They were extraordinary. I didn't know what I was doing; I was only thinking of using my home economics schooling. All I had to do was bring that to the YWCA."
Her first assignment turned into one of her proudest moments from among her decades at the Charleston YWCA. "They had built the new building [on Coming Street] in 1964," she says. "They instilled in me the responsibility of making the monthly mortgage payments on that building. And man, did we make the monthly payments! It was so awesome to see how the black community responded, donating to the building fund."
One volunteer— Ms. Jackson still remembers her name: Ms. Nichols—suggested they come up with a dollar-a-month club, in which everyone would give a dollar toward the building mortgage payment each month. Ms. Jackson thought a dollar was too small, thinking they should aim for more like $10 per month. "But it evolved into a big thing, and we paid off the mortgage two or three years early."
Three KingsOne of Charleston's most historic civil rights moments involved the hospital strike at the Medical University of South Carolina. "There were some meetings [about it] at the YWCA," recalls Ms. Jackson. Her cousin, Coretta Scott King, came to Charleston to lead the strike, and she remembers some of the Charleston YWCA's members and board members being individually involved.
Ms. Jackson was sitting in an evening meeting at the YWCA when she received word of Dr. King's assassination, shaking her badly. She had seen him in 1967, the year after she began leading the Charleston YWCA, when he came to Charleston to speak.
She was instrumental in creating Charleston's commemoration of his life, an annual celebration the YWCA of Greater Charleston would become known for.
In a Bounce "Living Legend" interview, she recalled that a volunteer originally suggested a Martin Luther King ball. Though Ms. Jackson felt a ball wasn't the right way to honor the reverend's memory, the ball was held in 1972, and she balanced it by inviting the pastor of an Alabama church to serve as a keynote speaker in a separate worship service. The following year, a second annual worship service was held at Gaillard Auditorium, and the keynote speaker was Dr. King's father, Martin Luther King, Sr.
Ms. Jackson remembers the first and second annual events like they were yesterday. "I remember Joe Riley being at that celebration," she says. And she recalls a pivotal conversation after the second annual celebration: "I remember standing in the lobby of the YWCA with Reverend Blake, and he pointed out to me that Martin Luther King had never had a service at an auditorium. It had never occurred to me. After that, we had it at the Morris Street Baptist Church."
A Dr. Martin Luther King Day breakfast for business leaders and professionals was added to the mix in 2000 after, as the Post & Courier reports, Ms. Jackson walked into Mayor Joe Riley’s office unannounced, unhappy that the holiday was being overlooked by too many people in Charleston. She and the mayor came up with the idea of organizing the breakfast, now a fixture in Charleston. The 15th annual breakfast was held in January, with 600 in attendance.
In fact, the initial celebration spread throughout the Charleston tri-county area, Ms. Jackson says, with eight or nine communities holding their own Martin Luther King programs while the YWCA held its downtown. In January, the Chronicle reported the celebration had expanded to nine worship services in communities across the Charleston metropolitan area, an ecumenical service, a parade (the first one was in 1993), the breakfast, recognition awards, and more.
Boys, girls, womenThere were many other programs, of course, all designed to make an impact. Ms. Jackson best remembers the events designed to make a difference in the lives of youth—her greatest passion.
"What I think about most is all the programs we had in this community for boys and girls," she says.
There were the SPICE clubs, designed to develop future leaders and stop violence. Ms. Jackson’s brother, who had worked with Martin Luther King, came up with the name, which stands for Students for Peace In Communities Everywhere.
There were the Y Teen Clubs, Charleston’s iteration of a national YWCA program. Local teachers served as advisors, arranging annual road trips to civil rights landmarks in Atlanta, Birmingham, and elsewhere. "We took busloads of kids," recalls Ms. Jackson.
The annual Tribute to Women in Industry (TWIN) stands out in Ms. Jackson’s memory. "I went to national YWCA meetings, and I would talk with my colleagues at the other YWCAs, hearing what they were doing and getting ideas," she says. "One of them mentioned TWIN. I came back to Charleston, got together a committee of women, and we established a TWIN program for our YWCA."
"Business and industry—the Post & Courier, the TV stations, the big companies—would select a different woman to be honored each year. In my mind, next to the Martin Luther King celebration, this was the best program the YWCA did that showcased women. There'd be a table of her coworkers sitting there, cheering her on," she says. "Prior to the TWIN program, we didn't have the involvement of business and industry in the whole tri-county area. That was a big program. Those are the kinds of things I miss doing."
"The good in people is always going to outweigh the bad"
Ms. Jackson retired as executive director in 2003.
Even today, it's hard for her to sit back and let others take on the work. "Even at my age, it's so hard for me to read the paper every day," she says. "Every day, there's negative stuff about young black men. I don’t believe it has to be that way."
The recent shooting at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church shook her badly. "That hit me in the gut," she says. "You don’t want tragedies to happen anywhere, but for it to happen in the house of God… But there is so much good in the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many people. The good in people is going to always outweigh the bad. God is still in charge."
She laughs about the time a volunteer pointed out she never gave him a choice in whether to volunteer for a particular task. "I remember thinking God gave me a special gift to get people involved doing things," she says.
Indeed, she gives all the credit to the countless volunteers who donated their time, drive, and effort over the decades. "All the successes we had … was because there were so many wonderful people in this community who served as volunteers and got the program going."