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The Interview: Georgia Jackson, Parishioner at Pilgrim Baptist

By Rachelle Bowden in Miscellaneous on Feb 2, 2006 1:45PM

The Friday that Pilgrim Baptist Church caught on fire, Georgia Jackson, of the West Pullman neighborhood on the far South Side, watched the scene on television. When she joined other congregation members in Bronzeville the next day, "the fire was still smoldering," she recalled.

2006_02_georgia_jackson.jpgThe 10,500 square foot building was originally designed as a synagogue in 1890 by the architectural duo of Louis H. Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, whose many other Chicago credits include the Auditorium Building and State Street's Carson Pirie Scott. In 1922, the building became Pilgrim Baptist Church. The church's legendary musical director, the late Thomas A. Dorsey, is widely recognized as "the father of gospel music."

Just two Sundays after the fire, Pilgrim Baptist held services at its community center, across the street from the devastated site at 33rd and South Indiana. Though the church's outer walls were still standing, its signature red roof had fallen during the fire. Police caution tape and at least three squad cars were in place to ensure that visitors stayed clear of the potentially unstable structure.

Georgia Jackson is deeply devoted to her church, its school, the member-run credit union and the younger generation of parishioners. Chicagoist talked with the longtime Pilgrim member nine days after the fire, just before Sunday school was called into session. (Special thanks to Sam H for this interview!)

Chicagoist: When you first began attending services at Pilgrim, were you aware of the church's storied history, including the architecture of Louis H. Sullivan and the music of Thomas A. Dorsey?

Georgia Jackson:
I wasn't. I was brought up to date on that. Because at first some of the information I did not know about, didn't have. But the more I attended the more information I received.

Chicagoist: Do you have a favorite hymn?

Georgia Jackson: Yeah, I guess my favorite hymn would be "Jesus, keep me near the Cross." [Jackson, graciously, agreed to sing a few lines of the hymn.]

Chicagoist: What's your favorite memory of the church?

Georgia Jackson: I've always worked in the Sunday school, been a member of the Sunday school. And so I've worked with the children and for the children. I am one of the superintendents of the Sunday school. Oh! Here's one of my precious… [A young girl runs into the lobby and gives Jackson a tight hug.] And this covers from the time the child is born until the time the child makes about 21 or 22. We divide them up according to chronological age, because that's about the best way we can measure them.

Chicagoist: Is there a specific Sunday, some Sunday in your memory that stands out, when the service was especially moving or you had some special visitor?

Georgia Jackson: This church is known for having outstanding ministers. So there have been so many of them, you know.

Chicagoist: How has the church community come together during this difficult time?

2006_02_pilgrim_baptist.jpgGeorgia Jackson: Well, for example, yesterday we had, right here in this room, in this building, we had a church meeting. We were deciding where we are, immediately at this time, and where we want to go. What we have to deal with to get where we want to go and where we need to go to get some help in the system. And how it's necessary that we all pull together, and that one of the things we teach here is that the church is within us. So what we say is that our building – that building over there – burned in many instances. But because we have the church within us, then we are going to rebuild a new building – or add on – and we're going to take the church within us to a new structure.

Chicagoist: Are you confident, after attending that meeting, that the rebuilding is going to be done quickly?

Georgia Jackson: Well, everything that you do takes time. And I don't know exactly because not everything has been assessed, you know. There are some people here, like our deacons and our trustees, who are dealing with different situations. Like, we have to contact the insurance, contact this, do this, do that and so forth. So whatever it takes to pull the church together, we need. That's what we're going to work for. And I'm sure it's going to take awhile to restructure whatever we have to restructure. Because, we have to wait for people to come in and tell us whether or not we can add new to the old. What I mean by that – we have the outside of the structure building still standing. But we do not know if we will be able to build on the inside something new and attach it to the outer structure, which is old.

Chicagoist: Or whether you have to start all over?

Georgia Jackson: Right, so we don't know exactly where we are because we have been prohibited from going into the building. And we have a lot of things in that building over there, because our credit union is over there, and this thing and other things. One of the things I think we leaned from this is that we kept much history in that building. So we have already been talking about, maybe we should have a vault or some other place to store some of the history, you see. Because we don't know how much history has been burned, demolished and cannot be used again.

Chicagoist: You mentioned the church's credit union. Were you a member of the credit union?

Georgia Jackson: I'm a member of the credit union. I hold an office in the credit union: vice chair.

Chicagoist: How long have you been the vice chair of the credit union?

Georgia Jackson: Oh, for several years, eight or nine years. And, of course, I've been a member of the credit union longer than that.

Chicagoist: I understand that the records of the credit union were backed up…

Georgia Jackson: Oh yeah, there was backup information. We have computers in there. There's backup information. And what we did yesterday at the meeting, we reassured all of the credit union members who attended the meeting yesterday that the money was saved. Every Sunday – I work at the credit union – the money goes to the bank. So we assured them that 'You don't have to worry. Your money is in the bank.' So that's the important thing, you know. As I said, I work in that credit union on Sunday. And before we leave, we make out the bank statements.

Chicagoist: Some politicians, including Gov. Rod Blagojevich, have pledged public money to help rebuild the school and administrative offices… [U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and Ald. Dorothy Tillman also promised to seek federal and city funds, respectively.]

Georgia Jackson: Right.

Chicagoist: The governor has taken some criticism for it because of separation of church and state issues. How do you feel about that personally?

Georgia Jackson: Well, I feel, I feel that if the governor wants to contribute to the school, it's wonderful because we need the school. We need the school. We need to teach the children and so forth and so on, and that's wonderful. That's separate. And then if you want to give something to rebuild the church, per say, you can separate that and give another individual [personal] contribution. There are going to be a lot of people going to complain anyway no matter what you do. One of the things we have to be aware of is that we are not going to please everyone. We'll do the best we can and go forward.

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Donations to help Pilgrim Baptist Church rebuild should be directed to:

Pilgrim Baptist Church Rebuilding Fund
P.O. Box 94433
Chicago, IL 60690-4433

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Thanks to Sam H. for this interview & photos