BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The afro changed everything.
Granted, Sherri Jackson’s mother, Minnie, had taught her for as long as she could remember that her daughter could do and be anything she wanted to be.
“I did it my way,” her mother would say of her own life. And her daughter should, too.
But it was the afro — Susan Kidd’s afro, to be exact — that really cemented Sherri Jackson’s future.
Jackson remembered watching Kidd on local TV news in St. Louis, Missouri, where she grew up. It was the early 1980s — a time when few Black anchors even graced the airwaves — and yet, there was Kidd with her hair worn naturally and, Sherri thought, iconically.
“I was really struck,” Jackson said. “I wanted to be Susan Kidd.”
The simple representation would be one of the sparks that lit a fire for Jackson — a passion that has yet to be extinguished.
On Thursday, CBS 42’s Sherri Jackson spoke openly in an in-depth interview about her life, her award-winning career, and what has now been 25 years of what she calls “loving on her community” here in Birmingham.
Show me your roots
Her mother Minnie made the greens. Aunt Naomi brought the potato salad. And everyone gathered at her grandmother’s house.
Sherri Jackson remembers those Thanksgivings the most fondly. The holiday was around her grandmother’s birthday and was always a big deal.
There was fellowship and family. There were finger foods. “And there was always love,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s mother Minnie was only 16 when she married and had her older sister Jeri.
“She always said we grew up together,” Jackson said of her mom. “She was just the coolest.”
Jackson’s father Willie Jackson, Jr., had grown up in Louisiana — “the marsh,” Jackson called it, but had eventually moved to St. Louis.
Her grandmother Margaret V. Jones — her mom’s mom — was the family’s matriarch. She was the strongest of women, Jackson said, raising 10 girls and a boy while coping with a husband who suffered from alcoholism.
“She was a saint,” Jackson explained.
And she was the glue, too. It was “Granny” that brought everyone together for those special family gatherings. Even now, Jackson said, years after her death, she’s still holding the Jacksons together.
If Sherri Jackson’s grandmother was the glue, her mom was the dreamer.
When Jackson was six or seven, her mother took her, Jeri, and Bill from St. Louis to live in L.A. — “a brief separation,” one of her siblings explained.
It was a move that, looking back, Jackson felt gave her mother some agency in a life that she may have felt she’d left behind in having children and marrying so young.
“It was just dreaming,” Jackson said. “She worked as a barmaid. She used to come home with tons of coins from waiting the bar.”
Minnie would occasionally take her kids to work. “That’s where we learned about Shirley Temples,” Jackson said.
It was there, too, at that L.A. bar, where Jackson gained an early appreciation for live music — jazz in particular.
But the L.A. life wouldn’t last forever.
“One day we come out of the front door of our house and my dad is there,” Jackson remembered. “We tackled him. ‘Daddy, daddy, daddy.'” He took the kids back to St. Louis, and soon, Minnie followed. The couple, who’d divorced, would remarry when Jackson was in high school.
“But we didn’t really know any of that until the second wedding,” Jackson said.
Drum and Bugle
Once back in St. Louis, Jackson’s grandmother made sure that “the girls” began attending church regularly. Jackson became even more involved in community programs, too. During the summers, Jackson marched in a drum and bugle corps, a group that had been created to give local kids something to keep them out of trouble. It did much more than that, Jackson explained, and it had become a part of her family’s identity. Her mother had been in the corps. So had her aunt.
“It was a great environment for anyone who was coming of age,” Jackson said.
She said the St. Louis Memorial Lancers Drum and Bugle Corps had little money, but it had spirit, rhythm, and the support of its community.
“We were this poor, ragtag group of people,” Jackson recalled fondly, laughing as she remembered. “They’d have coach buses, and we’d pull up in a school bus — no air conditioning. “But once we left the field, people remembered we were there. It just wasn’t what people expected. It was excellence.”
The institution, too, formed an informal corps-to-college pipeline for local Black kids in St. Louis who realized that their musical talents could lead to scholarship opportunities that may put college in reach.
Many in the corps around the same time as Jackson went on to Mississippi Valley State University, but Jackson herself had wanted to go to Mizzou, known for its journalism department. She missed the bus — literally. She’d been scheduled to tour the school and had accidentally slept in the day it was scheduled. The error left a bad taste in her mouth, and she knew her family wouldn’t really be able to afford the tuition at the school. Mizzou wasn’t in the cards.
Instead, Jackson would first end up at Missouri Valley College, where she was one of only a small number of Black students.
It was there Jackson said she began to more fully understand the challenge that racism poses in the everyday lives of Black folks.
She remembered a local Black woman who’d come to campus to host Bible studies. Jackson and her friends welcomed the woman, even helping her put up fliers around the school to promote it.
“We were called into an office,” she said. “And they ended up expelling this woman from campus.”
Jackson said while she didn’t understand the politics of what exactly happened that day, she felt that race had played a role in the school’s decision.
“It felt so wrong to me,” Jackson said. “The hypocrisy of not letting her do a Bible study at a Presbyterian college.”
Soon, Jackson would transfer to Morehead State University in Kentucky, where she’d eventually earn her bachelor’s degree.
“Now I’m in a community where people literally haven’t seen Black people,” Jackson said.
From the moment she moved in, she knew she was in a new environment. Unwelcomed by white roommates who neither expected nor wanted to share a dorm with a Black student, Jackson persevered.
Later in her time at Morehead State, Jackson was passing through the lobby of the dorm building.
“What I see when I come down to the lobby is a young black student who’s just hysterical being restrained by white women,” she said. “And I was just like ‘What’s happening?'”
The student had gotten into a fallout with her white roommates.
“She was from D.C. She’s got these braids in her hair,” Jackson said. “They were not ready for this person in Morehead, Kentucky.”
Still, Jackson said Morehead’s journalism faculty and students were a small but friendly group. She stuck it out at the university and soon found herself working as an intern at a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters in Atlanta where her job, along with a few others, was to put reel tapes of potential “on-air talent” into VCRs for management at the conference to watch. Amongst themselves, the interns agreed to play each others tapes first each time they had the opportunity.
It was an intern named Eric who played Jackson’s tape for a news manager at a station in Macon, Georgia. He wanted her chipped tooth fixed, Jackson was told, but the manager thought she was “a diamond in the rough.”
At the time, Jackson said, all she knew about Georgia was what she’d seen on an episode of Oprah Winfrey about Forsyth County, where no Black people had reportedly lived in 75 years. She took the job anyway.
In Macon, Jackson began gaining her footing in both anchoring and reporting. She’d help cover, for example, the trial of Walter Leroy Moody, who killed Alabama Judge Robert Vance and Georgia Civil Rights attorney Robert E. Robinson.
“I started understanding ‘Okay, I’m a professional,'” Jackson said.
Jackson was at the station for 18 months before she began to feel she needed to move on. At one point, Jackson found herself in hot water with management because she’d refused to do the “Tomahawk chop,” a still-controversial sports tradition associated with the Atlanta Braves, among other teams.
“People were offended, so I wasn’t going to do it,” Jackson said.
Her boss got mad, and she began to look for an exit.
To Savannah and beyond
It was in Savannah that Sherri Jackson said she learned how to find and tell a compelling story. There, she began gravitating toward the stories of those individuals who’d been shunned because of their AIDS diagnoses.
“I was meeting people whose lives had been turned upside down,” she said. “There was no compassion for these people.”
She began interviewing those impacted, telling their stories to help the public better understand what was a novel and alarming disease.
The first time Sherri Jackson came to Birmingham was for her job interview at WIAT. She got the job.
25 years later, Jackson said she’s still not finished “loving on” her community.
When she first arrived in the city, she said she was blown away by how different Birmingham was from what she’d expected and from what she’d experienced in Macon, Savannah, and during a stint in West Virginia.
A station secretary drove Jackson around Birmingham for the first time. She asked to go to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of an act of racial terrorism that led to the death of four little girls.
“I just remember that hallowed feeling, seeing that place.” Jackson said.
In the weeks and months after that short visit to Sixteenth Street, Sherri Jackson began to see a disparity between her experiences as a Black person in Birmingham and what was being portrayed on the news. Over time, she became more comfortable and confident in communicating that disparity in an effort to improve the accuracy of reporting.
“Over the mountain was such a big term when I moved here, and I was like ‘That’s like saying across the tracks,'” Jackson said.
Jackson was in and out of Norwood every day, dropping her son off for childcare, working at WIAT on Red Mountain, and then heading home to an apartment in Cahaba Heights.
“Black communities I was in every day weren’t getting the same love on the news,” Jackson said.
Jackson said that even in her reflection on footage from her early years at WIAT this week, she’s realized how even her own reporting has advanced to become more inclusive and less generalized.
“These communities are all distinct. They’re different,” she said. “And as a journalist, you just have to go out there and see.”
To Africa and back
Building on her work around AIDS, Jackson turned to the connection between Alabama and Africa in relation to the disease for a project that brought the anchor to Tanzania and Kenya.
It was a life-changing experience for Jackson.
“It was full circle for me,” she said.
Susan Kidd, the woman whose afro inspired Sherri Jackson to step into her own future, said Africa was a life-changing experience for her, too.
Kidd learned about her influence on Jackson’s career for the first time Thursday. She’s retired now and lives in Atlanta.
Kidd’s father had been a professor, and when she was about 10, the family traveled to Nigeria for him to teach. She brought the trip up when asked about the afro she wore on air during her days in St. Louis in the 1980s — the decade of Ronald Reagen and Angela Davis. But she said the afro wasn’t a political statement per se. It was an act of self-affirmation.
“Nigeria changed my feelings of who I was,” Kidd said. “The afro spoke a great deal about who I was and who I wanted to be.”
She laughed as she thought about it.
“And I thought it was becoming.”
Sherri Jackson thought so, too.
The two, in separate interviews, both said they took on the responsibility of making sure the stories of Black folks were told in the news, and not just through the lens of crime, poverty, or welfare.
“Black people have stories to tell in every arena,” Kidd said.
For 25 years, Sherri Jackson has been telling them.
Here’s to 25 more.