This year, SCAD and Paula Wallace inducted five new women into the Savannah Women of Vision, a program that celebrates key female figures whose ideas, leadership and service have shaped the community of Savannah. This weekly column will attempt to share a little more of the stories behind each of the fifteen women whose gold portraits hang on either side of the Arnold Hall Theater.
When Edna Jackson was honored at the 2018 Savannah Women of Vision ceremony earlier this month, Ebony Simpson, a historic preservation alumna, said, “She knows how to bring people together and has just the right touch to affect people in their lives and in their professions.”
Born in 1944, Edna grew up in Savannah in Currytown, which has since been razed and replaced with projects under “urban renewal.” Fatherless, she was predominantly raised by her grandmother while her mother worked long spells in Florida as a cook to send money back home to care for Edna and her sister. Her grandmother was not formerly educated but loved to read and she forbade Edna to cook or do housework so that she could instead spend her time on homework and extracurricular activities.
Her godmother and next-door neighbors would invite the Jackson girls over for tea and encourage Edna’s already blooming civic pursuits. “They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” she told GeorgiaTrend when she was inducted as one of their 2012 Power Women.
When Edna was nine, her grandmother suggested that she join Savannah’s NAACP Youth Council where she was taught African-American history, largely ignored in public school curriculum, by Savannah civil rights trailblazer W. W. Law.
Her family did not have the money to send both her and her sister to college but Edna was content to prioritize her involvement with the NAACP over her education. She attended church “kneel-ins” and joined sit-ins at downtown businesses, one of which was the Azalea Room, where the Jen Library now stands. She also participated in a “wade-in” at Tybee Beach, when the beach itself was integrated but only whites were permitted to swim in the water. She and a couple of her fellow participants were arrested and thrown in jail, still in their bathing suits.
When she was eighteen, she helped the Youth Council take an integrated group in three station wagons to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March on Washington and to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
She extended her NAACP work to include Florida and Alabama and became a part of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. In an interview with WTOC, Edna said, “I worked full time with the NAACP until they said it was time for me to go back to school. I said ‘No, I need to fight for freedom.’ I’ll never forget my boss asked, ‘What are you going to do with that freedom once you get it?’ I couldn’t answer that question and they sent me back to school. So I owe a lot to the NAACP.”
Edna enrolled at Savannah State, graduated in 1968 and earned her master’s in education in 1972. Sometime during her time at State, she heard a speech by Shirley Chisholm, the country’s first black congresswoman and one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm was currently campaigning as the first black woman to run for president.
Edna briefly worked as a social worker before returning to Savannah State to serve as director of emergency school assistance while also serving as a recruiter, counsellor, admissions officer and alumni liaison.
After Edna retired in 2001, she shifted her focus towards politics, serving three terms as an alderwoman on the Savannah City Council, beating out fellow Woman of Vision Miriam Center for her third term. During her time as alderwoman, she cultivated support with the diverse businesses of Savannah.
In 2011, Edna was elected as the 65th mayor of Savannah, the city’s first African-American woman to hold the position. During her two terms in office, she prioritized jobs and fought to deepen Savannah’s harbor to allow “supertankers” into the port. In 2012, she conducted a minute-long meeting with President Obama, somehow working in a discussion of the delicious biscuits of another fellow Woman of Vision, Sema Wilkes, into a conversation lobbying for federal funding.
Edna continues to receive accolade after accolade, including the Savannah Civil Rights Museum Unsung Heroes Award, the NAACP Freedom Award and the Equal Opportunity Association Martin Luther King Service Award.
Throughout the successes of her later life, Edna has continued to champion the power of female friendship and support by creating a group of friends and colleagues who call themselves the Mandingo Socio-Civic Club and function as informal advisors and counselors.
When looking back on the most influential moments of her life with GeorgiaTrend, Edna said, “You have to be able to tell your story. How can you know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been?”
By Elena Burnett.