Reverend Dr. Willie B. Jemison
The grandson of a slave, the Rev. Willie B. Jemison dedicated his life to religion and education.
He was one of the first African-American ministers in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and at Oakdale Covenant Church on the South Side, where he was pastor for 30 years, he built a school and watched the congregation grow from just 25 members to more than 1,200.
The Rev. Jemison, 81, died of kidney failure Sunday, June 5, in Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, said his daughter Angelena Smith. He lived in Chicago’s Morgan Park neighborhood.
The Rev. Jemison was born in Montgomery, Ala., the youngest of 10 children. In search of a better life, his family moved to Chicago in the early 1930s, his daughter said. His father died on the trip north.
At Felsenthal Elementary School on the South Side, he met his future wife, Bessie. They also attended Phillips High School together, and he went on to graduate from Moody Bible Institute.
He was ordained as a Baptist minister in the mid-1960s and started his church career as a Sunday school teacher at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Morgan Park.
At the time, the Gresham neighborhood where Oakdale Covenant Church located was shifting in population from white to black. Rather than move, the Evangelical Covenant Church sought out an African-American pastor for the congregation. The Rev. Jemison took the post in 1970 and transferred his ordination to the Evangelical Covenant Church two years later.
During his 30 years as pastor at Oakdale Covenant, the church moved from 88th Street and Normal Avenue to its current location at 9440 S. Vincennes Ave. He added a K-8 school and helped a large number of children continue their education after high school at colleges and technical schools.
“He used every resource available to him to get kids educated,” said his son Steven. “He made it happen.”
He also preached on the importance of education at his own home, and four of the Rev. Jemison’s six children have advanced degrees, his son said.
“He was a visionary, and I also think that he just let God take the talents and gifts that he had and maximize them,” Smith said. “He believed that with a vision, people would just prosper, and without (visions), they would just perish.”
After retiring, the Rev. Jemison spent his time caring for family members and chauffeuring neighbors on errands. He made sure his children knew the family history.
“He tried to give the history of the family … so (its youngest members) would not forget,” Smith said.