This Labor Day weekend there will be no festival at the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center. Instead, friends and family will gather there Sunday, Sept. 3, at 3 p.m. for a celebration of the life of the center’s development director, Dr. Gayle Jackson, who died Aug. 25 at age 72.
Gayle Latricia Martin Jackson, Ph.D., was not born in the area. But the native of Baltimore, Maryland, came to know and love Willow Hill, the Portal, Georgia area and their extended community through her husband, Dr. Alvin Jackson, now the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center’s board president. He 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 medical doctor.
They were leading founders of the 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 on Willow Hill Road near Portal 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.
As development director, Jackson led in fundraising and grant application efforts, but also in the development of relationships that produce lasting support for the Willow Hill Center’s programs, said her daughter Dr. Nkenge Jackson-Flowers, who is also involved in the center’s work.
“One of my mother’s mantras was the first thing that you have to do is friend-raising, and that is something she and my dad have been really, really good at, making friends and meeting people. …,” said Jackson-Flowers. “And she was such a kind person. She always treated people with respect, the way she wanted to be treated, and people gravitated toward her.”
Jackson made lasting friendships at Georgia Southern University, with Bulloch County Schools faculty and staff and within other governmental and nonprofit organizations. 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.
“One thing that my mom has always been passionate about is young people and their success,” said Jackson-Flowers.
When the Jacksons lived in Columbus, Ohio, Gayle Jackson led a youth group called the Pathfinders and managed a youth drum corps that performed around the state. 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 Graduation Ceremony, which continues as an annual tradition in Fremont, to recognize student achievements.
A further story about friends’ memories of Jackson and about the center’s ongoing work will follow Sunday’s service. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations to the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center in her honor.