Of the many roles Mary W. Jackson embraced — human computer, sorority sister, science and math educator, mentor — some of those closest to her called her grandma.
“She was very family oriented and very smart,” KaShawnta Lee, her granddaughter said. “You know she was a teacher. She set up her garage like a school in the back. We were like 6 years old learning algebra and playing teacher and students, so yeah, she taught us a lot.”
“She was very overprotective,” Bryan Jackson, a grandson and Chesapeake resident, said. He recalls as child after school, he would go to Jackson’s house in Olde Hampton. “I would do my math and science homework. Then she’d drop me off back home with canned goods and all types of stuff and my mother would say, ‘What did you tell your grandmother?’”
Jackson’s grandchildren along with sibling Wanda Jackson, and other family, came Tuesday to Grant Circle on Lincoln Street to mark the official start of construction on a neighborhood center named for the NASA engineer. Construction is expected to take several months, officials said.
Hampton reserved parking for spectators who wanted to watch from a safer distance. Most people emerged from their cars despite the rain — wearing masks as pandemic protocols dictate.
“We are here to celebrate a pioneer and ground-breaker herself,“ Mayor Donnie Tuck said, addressing the crowd from under a tent, while a large monitor streamed the event on Facebook. “It is particular appropriate that we break ground for this center during the first week of Black History Month ... a unique opportunity to celebrate Olde Hampton, one our oldest and historically significant communities.”
Jackson, a native of Hampton who hailed from the Olde Hampton neighborhood, died in 2005.
Another Hampton native, author Margot Lee Shetterly, characterized her life along with Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan in the book “Hidden Figures.” The story recounts the women’s contributions with Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a forerunner of NASA, during the 1950s and 1960s.
For years, the women and their roles with space exploration had been largely hidden until Shetterly’s book was made into a movie that premiered in 2016.
Long before Jackson achieved worldwide recognition, she forged strong ties in her community.
She devoted much of her life to mentoring and tutoring children in math and was a member with Bethel A.M.E. Church. Jackson also had allegiances with the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Members from the Gamma Upsilon Omega Chapter of AKA came out to support their sister, in a fanfare of pink and green, the sorority’s colors.
“She is a hidden figure no more,” said chapter president Nicole Francisco. “It’s just an amazing legacy to behold ... here today. We’re just excited to be a part of the experience.”
“She was such a gift,” said fellow member Paula Perry. “You did not know who she was. I didn’t know she was that big. That grandeur. And I’ve known her since ’74, but she was always very humble.”
Jackson also had ties to Local 8888 of the United Steelworkers Union.
Jackson’s daughter, Carolyn Lewis, was married to a union trustee, Raymond Lewis, union spokesman Dwight Kirk said in an email. Carolyn died last year, but the couple took care of Jackson as her health declined.
“The union considered Ms. Jackson a part of the Steelworkers’ family. In fact, Local 8888 dedicated its Black History Month program in 2017 to honoring her,” Kirk wrote. “I will always remember this day. It is part of the celebration of Black excellence at a time when our nation is straining to find unity and reconciliation honoring this strong Black woman for her genius and service has brought us together as a proud community.”
The effort led to a petition drive in which the union garnered 2,500 signatures to petition the Hampton City Council to have a public place named for Jackson. The timing was kismet. The community for years longed for a new center after Hampton shut down the former Olde Hampton Community Center in 2015 because it was old and deteriorating. The council voted in 2018 to name the center for Jackson.
Hampton set aside $3.5 million for two new neighborhood centers — one coming in Fox Hill. A portion of that funding will go toward the Mary Jackson Center, which will have a gymnasium, a full kitchen, multipurpose rooms and a redesigned park.
The center, with assistance from the Peninsula Community Foundation, will be the centerpiece of redevelopment in the historic neighborhood bounded by Settlers Landing Road, and Armistead, West Pembroke and LaSalle avenues.
“I’m so overwhelmed. I’m so glad it’s happening,” said Donna Little, who heads the Olde Hampton Neighborhood Association, commenting on the construction. “I plan to be there, every step of the way.”
Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, firstname.lastname@example.org