At a time when racial strife dominated the evening news, a group of black mothers gathered in Columbus to groom their children for a brighter future.
Those 17 women became charter members of the Columbus chapter of Jack and Jill of America, an organization that has produced many black civic leaders and professionals in the community over the years.
Now, half a century later, the local chapter — organized in 1966 — is celebrating its 50th anniversary. A gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at Green Island Country Club. Proceeds will benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Chattahoochee Valley and the Jack and Jill of America Foundation Inc.
Kornisha Brown, a Jack and Jill regional officer and immediate past president of the local organization, said the chapter started at the height of the civil rights movement, when many black parents feared for their children’s future.
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“Mothers were just concerned about the plight of our African-American youth, our community, and that was a way for mothers to figure out how to make sure that our children were safe, had access to educational opportunities that they otherwise may not have had, and that they were exposed to things that may have been denied to them due to the racial tensions during that time,” Brown explained.
She said it’s not very different from how many parents are feeling today.
“ ... At a time such as this, with our political climate and things just not being as predictable, we are in a unique time period where we don’t want any child to ever feel that they cannot reach their full potential,” she said. “Jack and Jill is about inspiring our young people, to let them know that they can succeed at anything they put their minds to, regardless of how things may look in our current society.”
At the gala, the chapter will honor two local leaders for their contributions to the community.
Juanita Booker, a founding member of the Jack and Jill chapter, will receive the Living Legacy Award for her years of service to the organization. She started a biennial Beautillion Ball about 36 years ago, which teaches young men about leadership, etiquette, community service and civic engagement. About 500 young men have gone through the program, which also raises money for local charities such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, Hope Harbour, Habitat for Humanity and the Liberty Theatre.
Robert “Bob” Wright, whose children grew up in Jack and Jill, will receive a Community Champion Award for his role in developing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. His late wife, June, was a past president of the local Jack and Jill chapter.
In addition to Booker, other charter members are Helen Barnhart, Thelma Baskin, Mary Frances Beckett, Mary Lee Bussey, Josephine Baugh, Online Christian, Elizabeth Gibson, Ruth Lewis, Sally Lunsford, Inez Morris, Lula Lunsford Odom, Gertha Stafford, Mary Frances Stephens, Mildred Terry, Jackie Whittlesey and Jeannette Wilson.
Most of those women have passed on, but their children carry on their legacy, Brown said. Sally Lunsford and Lula Lunsford Odom, for example, are the mother and aunt of Muscogee County Tax Commissioner Lula Huff. Huff grew up in the organization, and so did her daughter, Tamara, now an orthopedic surgeon, Brown said.
Some other graduates of the program include: Crystal Pendleton Shahid, manager of small business lending at Synovus; Geniece Davis Granville, an attorney and assistant general manager of Davis Broadcasting; Dr. Wesley Chambers, a local OB/GYN; and Katonga Wright, a local attorney.
Audrey Boone Tillman, Aflac’s executive vice president and general counsel, is currently president of the local chapter. Her son, Wesley Tillman, is teen president for the Jack and Jill Southeastern region.
“Our focus is on developing leadership skills in the children so that they can grow up and make valuable contributions to the world and to society,” Brown said. “They’re leaders in whatever they are involved in — be it their schools, be it careers, or be it just an overall participant in society. We feel the Jack and Jill experience helps to shape them to become better and successful at anything that they do.”