Widow of State Civil Rights Pioneer buried in Vicksburg
By Earnest McBride w/pix: Jefferson family pix
Some meaningful parallels in the lives of Grace Jefferson and Myrlie Evers will inevitably come to mind of anyone with even a remote interest in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
Grace Hibbler and Myrlie Beasley both married capable men who later proved to be of gigantic stature when compared to the commonalty of men around them. Both husbands---George Lee Jefferson and Medgar Wiley Evers---were successful businessmen who made a great effort to set examples for their peers by assaulting the racist mountain that blocked them from enjoying the same pleasures and privileges of white men of far less achievement that themselves.
Both men died, practically penniless, for their efforts. Both are nearly forgotten among the grass roots black and white Mississippians for whom they sought to bring into the burgeoning Twentieth Century, but actually faced the dilemma of having their legacies fade with the miasmic imagery of an increasingly decadent and uncaring fin-de-siecle apathy of a hundred years before.
Both Jefferson and Evers were listed among the bravest NAACP leaders in the history of the NAACP, although they were sometimes viewed by the New York directory as rather Quixotic or even foolhardy in their quest to bring racial equality and social justice to Mississippi, the international benchmark of white supremacist idiocy and immutability. Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution served as the model for all the Southern states as they were transforming from the Reconstruction era of black political ascendancy and into the age of lynch-law and Jim Crow.
When the founding father of the NAACP in Mississippi, Dr. J. A. Miller, was tarred and feathered and run out of Vicksburg in 1918, the people at national headquarters in New York wrote Mississippi off. It was George Jefferson and a group of Abraham Lincoln Republicans---the Black and Tan Party members---who quietly revived the NAACP and staged the first State Convention in Vicksburg in 1945. George Jefferson was president of the Vicksburg Branch NAACP then and at the time of the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954.
George Jefferson, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1961 after being betrayed by many of the black people he had fought for before the local white businessmen brought him to financial and political ruin, left a 45-year-old homemaker and mother of three to tend to his two boys---Lee and Jeffrey-- and one daughter---Grace to make it as best they could in a cold, cruel world at the advent of the “new” Civil Rights Movement.
Medgar Evers in June 1963left Myrlie, a native of Vicksburg, with his three children ---Darryl and Vann, the two sons, and Reena, the daughter--- a young housewife and college dropout who was seemingly alone and ostracized. His assassination occurred only two years after the passing of George Jefferson in Vicksburg.
George Jefferson, once listed among the wealthiest black men of Mississippi, died in poverty because of his work in Civil Rights some years before national spotlight was shone on the Reverend Martin Luther King in Montgomery. Jefferson pushed for school integration in Vicksburg at the behest of Thurgood Marshall, the late Supreme Court Justice who had successfully argued the case for school desegregation before the U. S. Supreme Court. All the white leadership and half the black leadership in the state rallied against Jefferson, whose efforts of May 1954 inspired the development of the State Sovereignty Commission.
Being the heir of Black and Tan Party stalwarts like Robert Church of Memphis and Chicago Defender founder Robert Abbott, a native of Georgia, George Jefferson outmaneuvered his enemies in 1954 by qualifying as the first black man Since Reconstruction to run for a seat on a board of education in the state. The two white state lawmakers from Vicksburg passed an inscrutable law in Jackson that disallowed anyone from a municipality of more than 20,000---such as was Vicksburg---from holding a seat on a board of education in Mississippi.
In 1955, the year after Brown versus Board, the white stalwarts of Vicksburg then burned a cross in front of Jefferson Funeral Home, the family business managed by George Jefferson, long-time family associate Euphytee Williams recalled in 1995. Shortly after the cross burning, the attorney brother of the late Bishop Joseph Brunini approached the brothers of George Jefferson---William H., Sr., and James, Sr., now both deceased---and advised them to get rid of George Jefferson or lose the family business. Although he reportedly sold his corporate shares in the funeral home and burial association to his brothers, George Jefferson died in poverty.
Grace Jefferson’s life, although represented at one time as the crème-de-la-crème of the black bourgeoisie of Mississippi, was no crystal stair during the ten years she tried to maintain her roots in Mississippi after her husband’s death. A devoted housewife during the marriage, she tried substitute teaching in Vicksburg but moved to Los Angeles in 1971 and began working as a sales clerk at the J. W. Robinson’s department stores, where she remained until her retirement in 1993.
Although there are many landmarks to remind the historically indolent presences among us of the life and work of Medgar Evers, there remains only one true landmark devoted to George Jefferson---the George Jefferson Subdivision near Vicksburg’s City Cemetery. Jefferson’s dream had been that of building Mississippi’s first upscale housing development for black people. Because of his devotion to the cause of civil rights and racial equality, he lost all his credit lines and white associates who had promised to invest with him.
Grace Hibbler Jefferson, aged 90, died on April 21 in Vista, CA, after a brief illness. She was born February 23, 1916, in Laurel, the tenth of 10 children born to the Reverend and Mrs. John C. Hibbler. The family relocated to Vicksburg during the early years of Grace’s childhood and retained a household there until 1971, the year she departed for Los Angeles.
Mrs. Jefferson was a graduate of Jackson College High School and attended Tougaloo College. She obtained a B. S. degree in Sociology from Wiley College in Marshall, TX. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. A member of the Camille Art and Literary, founded by her aunt-in-law the famed philanthropist Lucy C. Jefferson, she was also a member of Wesley Methodist Church before leaving Vicksburg.
She leaves her two sons, Lee and Jeffrey and her daughter, Grace J. Stoufer, to mourn her, along with a number of nieces, nephews, in-laws and friends of longstanding.
Graveside services were set for 11 a.m. Thursday in Vicksburg at Cedar Hill Cemetery. The Rev. Richard Ford delivered the eulogy.
[EARNEST MCBRIDE'S HOMEPAGE]