Marian Cheek Jackson never met a stranger.
The lifelong Chapel Hill resident, 92, who died on March 4, was known to call the community center named after her in Northside to make sure someone was checking up on her neighbors. She sat with friends and acquaintances through loss and hardship. She babysat her son’s children when the recession in 2008 hit his family.
Anyone who needed help, whether they were black, white, rich or poor, could find kindness in Jackson.
“She looked at people as souls,” said Reginald Jackson, her youngest son.
At Jackson’s memorial service on March 11, Hudson Vaughan, the senior director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, described the incredible support he received from Jackson after the death of his friend.
“She sat with me in silence and then in prayer," he said at the service. “She shared this faith and love whether it was a close friend or a young white student showing up to hear her history.”
Vaughan had met Jackson only months before.
"This was God’s mandate for Jackson," said Patricia Jackson, Marian's daughter-in-law. "Marian's faith lay in the idea that you always have to remember others to be able to move on and help yourself."
Marian's eldest son, Boyd Jackson Jr., said his mother was a resource for anyone in a low place. She always understood what they needed and how to help them get it.
Born in 1925 to Kennon Cheek and Pearl Cotton, community involvement and service was already in her blood. Her grandfather, Rubin Cheek, was a freed slave and stonemason who came to Chapel Hill from Warren County after emancipation. He worked for the University, and some of the results of his craftsmanship still stand around the campus.
Her father, Kennon Cheek, started the Janitorial Association of the University to give a voice to workers at UNC.
Jackson was an avid member of St. Joseph’s Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. She taught at the Sunday School, acted as church secretary and archived the history of the church as the historian. Some of this history was also her own — after the church was built in 1898, a fire destroyed it one evening and her father was one of the men who helped rebuild it.
Jackson attended the Orange County Training School, which became known as Northside Elementary in 1951, and graduated from St. Augustine’s College in 1946.
After graduation she worked for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of the first African-American owned insurance companies in the United States. She took two buses every day during this time — one from Chapel Hill to Durham in the morning and one returning home in the evening to take care of her family.
She married Boyd Jackson Sr. and had two sons. The couple was married for more than 60 years.
Growing up a poor black woman in the South did not come without challenges for Jackson. Her son Reginald Jackson said he remembers the way she would aim to defy stereotypes with quiet dignity.
Boyd Jackson Jr. said when white college students from the University passed by her and her sons and shouted racial slurs at them, she told them to ignore the aggressive words because they were said out of ignorance.
During the Civil Rights movement, her young children kept her from joining the marches, but she encouraged others to be politically active and to vote.
Jackson wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and voice her opinion, Boyd Jackson Jr. said.
In addition to North Carolina Mutual, Jackson also worked for N.C. Memorial Hospital’s Blood Bank, Bynum Weaver Funeral Home, Granville Towers Dining Services and Knott’s Funeral Home.
In 2008, the Jackson Center was founded to preserve history and build community in Northside and was named after Marian. At Jackson’s memorial service, Vaughan explained why.
“She embodied the resilient, truth-telling faith that has sustained this community,” he said.
The Chapel Hill Historical Society named her a Town Treasure in 2015, a recognition that identifies people who have made great contributions to Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Marian's long history in the town gave her the insight to see and understand the happenings in the community. She was known for saying: “Without the past, we have no future.”
Despite all her accomplishments over the years as a leader and a friend, she remained humble.
Her son Reginald Jackson said she would be shocked that people thought her life was extraordinary.