‘She has a star in Chapel Hill’: Ethel Jean Jackson leaves indelible mark on public health education

July 13, 2020

Ethel Jean Jackson

Ethel Jean Jackson

Ethel Jean Jackson, MPH, clinical assistant professor emerita of health behavior and health education, passed away peacefully at home on July 5. She leaves behind a legacy as a beloved wife to her husband of 57 years, Curtis Jackson Jr., and also as a mother, grandmother, teacher, mentor, advisor, practitioner and friend. Jackson demonstrated a passionate commitment to community outreach and health advocacy, particularly in communities of color.

Jackson was born to William and Easter Riggsbee and grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina during an era of segregation. The experience of losing her mother to breast cancer at age 15 made a lasting impact on Jackson and instilled in her a desire to develop support systems for families burdened by health care needs.

She attended Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, N.C., and Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. After graduation, Jackson taught high school students in Walterboro, S.C., and at Blanche General Ely in Pompano Beach, Fla. She also served as a community center directress in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., developing programs in dance, music and drama designed to help children and teenagers express hurts, fears and happiness. Jackson worked with migrant children in the school system with the goal of assisting them with their studies and promoting self-esteem.

In Florida, she met and married her husband, Curtis Jackson Jr., MPH, and had two daughters, Rhonda and Lorie. Their third daughter, Dasha, was born shortly after the family moved back to Chapel Hill.

Ethel Jean Jackson enrolled in the Gillings School in 1972 to pursue a Master of Public Health degree in health education.

Ethel Jean Jackson enrolled in the Gillings School in 1972 to pursue a Master of Public Health degree in health education.

After their return to North Carolina, Jackson and her husband attended the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in 1972. According to Jackson, the year the couple enrolled was the first time the School of Public Health placed a major emphasis on recruiting African American students. That emphasis came in response to advocacy from the School’s Black Student Caucus, formed in 1971. The Jacksons earned Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees in 1974 – Ethel Jean’s in health education and Curtis’ in health administration.

Jackson became a health education specialist and worked at Duke University Medical Center with Eva Salber, MD, to coordinate and manage a community health education program. She also worked in Chatham County on an environmental project led by W.R. Kenan Jr. Professor emeritus John Hatch, DrPH, that organized local communities to make safety repairs to the homes of senior citizens involved in childcare.

Jackson joined the faculty of the Gillings School as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education in the early 1980s. She served as director of the undergraduate program and was practicum coordinator for MPH students who worked with health agencies in the United States and several foreign countries. She was also a visiting professor at North Carolina Central University. She was the faculty coordinator for the Helping Mothers/Helping Families program in Lee and Chatham counties and a consultant for Black Churches United for Better Health, a program designed to help church members increase the number of fruits and vegetables in their diets. During her tenure, she was nominated for the Gillings School’s Edward G. McGavran Award for Excellence in Teaching and was selected to participate in the 1992 Restoration of the Black Family White House Congressional Briefing.

Alongside Salber, Jackson innovated the concept of the lay health advisor (LHA): a local mentor who provides health care advice to the community. Jackson trained these mentors in proper health practices so they could, in turn, educate the people who regularly turned to them for guidance. After instituting the LHA approach in practice, Jackson formalized the concept in a 1997 article with Carol Parks, PhD, titled “Recruitment and Training Issues From Selected Lay Health Advisor Programs Among African-Americans: a 20-year Perspective.” The article was among the top twenty cited pieces of public health literature for decades, and it is still referenced to this day.

Jackson was a charter member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Area Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. In 1994, she co-chaired the chapter’s first Delta Dreamers program, an annual philanthropic event for scholarships, and helped raise the largest amount of scholarship funds in the chapter’s history – more than $20,000. Delta Dreamers continues today and is the chapter’s major fundraising activity.

Ethel Jean Jackson poses with Alicea Lieberman and Sabrina Boyce, 2009 recipients of the Ethel Jean Jackson Health Education Practice Award.

Ethel Jean Jackson (middle) poses with Alicea Lieberman (left) and Sabrina Boyce (right), 2009 recipients of the Ethel Jean Jackson Health Education Practice Award.

Upon her retirement from UNC in 1998, the Gillings School established the Ethel Jean Jackson Health Education Practice Award in her honor. This award is given every year to a health behavior graduate student who demonstrates strong commitment and effective action in health education practice, particularly in disadvantaged communities and communities of color.

“Ethel was a totally wonderful human being. She was compassionate, understanding and incredibly supportive of her students,” said Jo Anne Earp, ScD, professor emerita and former chair of health behavior, who created the award in Jackson’s name. “She had a deep knowledge of lay health advisors as an indispensable asset to effective community mobilization, and she shared that knowledge in numerous trainings she conducted during her time on the faculty. She led our bachelor’s program admirably for a number of years. After she retired, even as she struggled a long time with severe heart disease, she attended and drew joy from the health behavior awards ceremony and the men and women who received the award created in her honor. In between awards visits with Ethel, she and I would sometimes speak on the phone, and she continued to be interested in the department and ‘her students,’ as she sometimes called the award winners. She was incredibly gracious when she attended the ceremony, and students flocked around her before and after the presentations.”

“Ethel Jean was the ‘class mother’ for our entering graduate cohort in health education in August 1972,” recalled Victor Schoenbach, PhD, associate professor emeritus. “I learned as much from her as from the faculty and have treasured her love and friendship for nearly a half-century. Her retirement celebration was a showcase of the love and appreciation for her by her family, friends, colleagues, former students and the entire community outside UNC!”

Jackson was also recognized in the community for her commitment to service. In 2014, she won the Hometown Heroes award and received the Village Pride Award from WCHL radio. In 2016, the Durham Alumnae Chapter of Bennett College honored her with the Women of Vision Award of Excellence in recognition of her distinguished leadership in health education and community outreach. That same year, Jackson received the Riggsbee Heritage Award in recognition and appreciation for helping to keep the family together and continuing to make an impact on surrounding communities. Jackson was also a very active member of the Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church of Chapel Hill, where she worked with the Young People Division on youth programming, including Vacation Bible School.

“Ethel Jean may not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” said longtime friend Alberta Neely at Jackson’s retirement celebration, “but she has a star in Chapel Hill. She has a star at the University. And one day she will have a star around the great throne of God.”

Though she faced significant health challenges in the later years of her life, Jackson never allowed them to impede celebrations of her faith, friends and family. The year before her passing, Jackson celebrated her birthday with a crown on her head in a home full of loved ones.

“Crowds of people were crammed into the space celebrating with her for hours,” said one of Jackson’s daughters. “Yet, when asked if she wanted a birthday party like that next time, her reply was ‘bigger.’”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Jackson was laid to rest in a closed ceremony on July 8 at the Westwood Cemetery in Carrboro. But in keeping with Jackson’s desire for something “bigger,” the outpouring of support from the Gillings School in the wake of her passing has been immense.

“I was a graduate student during her time in the department,” said Beth Moracco, PhD, associate professor of health behavior, “and the first recipient of the Ethel Jean Jackson Health Education Practice Award at her retirement dinner in 1998. People came from all over the country to honor her, and the tributes they gave about how her mentorship changed their lives were incredibly moving and inspiring. The impact that she had on public health practice was profound and will be felt for many years to come.”

“Mrs. Jackson was a phenomenal mentor and beloved friend that I had the privilege to know for the past 25 years,” said Lisa Davis, PhD, a 2003 doctoral alumna of the Gillings School and 2002 recipient of the Ethel Jean Jackson Award. “She will be dearly missed, and her public health legacy will continue on through so many of her former students.”

“When it came to LHA interventions, Ethel Jean Jackson was a fountain of deep and rich experience and knowledge that she generously shared with researchers, practitioners and students,” recalled Geni Eng, DrPH, professor of health behavior. “She was an essential collaborator with Dr. Eva Salber at Duke and Alan Cross and Marci Campbell at UNC on their large-scale LHA studies in rural African American communities of North Carolina. Having grown up, lived and worked in similar communities in the South, Ms. Jackson held unique insights on how to identify, harness and nurture naturally occurring social support and social networks in a community. Indeed, she was a natural helper herself, not only for families, friends and colleagues but also for hundreds of undergraduates enrolled in our bachelor’s program. For me, evolving from an MPH student to an academic working mother, Ms. Jackson’s warmth, sense of humanity and wisdom were constant, shaping my worldview on the meaning of humility, equity and dignity.  As she would say, ‘Praise Be!’”

“I first met Ethel Jean in late August 1972,” said Tom Milroy, MPH, a 1974 alumnus and a fellow member of Jackson’s cohort in health education.” She was not only the most mature member of our class, but she was also the warmest and the wisest – for it was she who helped us understand and appreciate each other. With Ethel Jean’s passing, I feel that I am saying farewell not only to a fellow student and dear friend but also to a mother and a sister. On a professional level, Ethel Jean had a positive influence on countless young community health educators. It is no exaggeration to say that she was the creator of a ‘style’ of community health education that combined compassion, love, understanding and warm humanity as a means of bringing about health-directed and health-related social and behavior change at every level of health education practice – especially at the individual and community levels. Her way of working was to bring everyone along with her towards positive health outcomes and never to leave anyone behind.”

“Ethel Jean and I met in 1972, as incoming classmates to the graduate MPH program in health education,” recalled Ellen Roberts, PhD, MPH, research associate professor of medicine. “We become steadfast friends, studied together, commiserated together, cried together, laughed together and learned from one another. She was my best friend in the program, and we have remained ‘friends forever’ for the past 48 years. Ethel Jean was selfless, a friend to all, working hard to make the world a better place for all persons – no matter their race, religious or personal beliefs. Ethel embraced us all!  She will be missed, but her legacies and contributions to public health and woman/mankind will live on. Dear Ethel, may you rest in peace.”

In the words of her family, “If it were possible, we would try to have all the people that Ethel Jean had touched come and touch her one last time. The church would ring with song and music and dance and performance – all the things Ethel loved. We would all crowd together as we did for her birthday party and laugh and cry together. We would tell our Ethel, Ethel Jean, Jean, Jeanie, Jeanie Bell, Momma, Ma, Mommy, Ma Jackson and Mamma Jean stories together and let the sorrow and grief release from our souls. We would hold each other and comfort each other and support each other through the process. We would assure and reassure each other that everything was going to be alright, that she was in a better place, no more suffering, no more pain, no more strokes. We would remind each other that now she was in the presence of Jesus. What greater place to be? We would encourage each other to think of how Ethel would finally see her mom and dad again and all the loved ones that got to heaven before she did. But COVID-19 has forced all of us to change our behavior and ultimately modify and/or curtail our activities and gatherings.

“Although we did not have that big send-off Ethel and the family would have loved to have, we extend our deepest and warmest gratitude to all those who love and care about Ethel Jean. And we know that all of you are with us in spirit.”

In tribute and memorial of the Jacksons’ legacy, Schoenbach has created a collection of resources that can be viewed online.


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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