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Graduated from Alexander: Acting mayor is Lincoln native

City Council president Charles Tillman, who was sworn in as acting mayor after the sudden death of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba Tuesday, is originally from Lincoln County.

Tillman, of Jackson, hails from the Damascus area of rural Lincoln County, rising to the ranks of retired educator and administrator, and went on to serve the city of Jackson as councilman of Ward Five.

Born one of seven children to Luther and Mary Tillman, he and his family moved from the country into the city of Brookhaven near Alexander High School and the Washington Street areas when he was a young man.

He attended junior and senior high schools in Brookhaven and graduated from Alexander High School in 1952, the year the school burned down.

“We graduated in the old gym,” Tillman said in a 2007 Daily Leader interview. The old gym is now the Alexander Teen Center.

Tillman was taught early on by two of his aunts to go to school and value an education. All seven of the Tillman children had some form of a college education, he said in the 2007 interview. “My grandmother Mary Crane always believed in education,” he said.

Immediately following his graduation, Tillman following the advice of his aunts, left to attend college at Alcorn State University where he spent two years. During his junior year of college his education was interrupted when he was drafted in the Army. But while spending 18 months in the Army, Tillman continued his studies by taking night courses.

After leaving the Army, he re-enrolled at Alcorn and completed his course work. He then enrolled in the University of Southern California and received his master’s degree in education, guidance and counseling.

Tillman felt a need to return to his roots, and soon came back to Mississippi after completing his education in California.

“My first career job was as a teacher-counselor at Parrish High School in Hazlehurst,” Tillman explained in the 2007 interview. “During the summers I would have to find work … black teachers couldn’t find work if you weren’t chosen for summer school.”

Tillman decided to use these summer hiatuses as opportunities to further his education, and applied and received grants to attend classes at North Carolina College, Atlanta University and the University of Notre Dame.

Tillman then received an offer to become a teacher-counselor at Lanier High School in Jackson.

“And the rest is just history making in Jackson,” Tillman said.

During his tenure in Jackson he has served as an assistant principal and principal at several schools including Rowan Junior High School where in February he was honored with a lifetime achievement award.

“I got involved with the community. I saw such a great need,” Tillman said. “It was one of the most impoverished areas of the city.”

Tillman cited high absenteeism and high school dropouts as a few of the ongoing problems he saw everyday.

“You’re going to have to go into the community and be apart of the community also,” Tillman explained. “And I did.”

During the 10 years Tillman stayed at Rowan Junior High he requested and helped obtain grants to build different projects in the community including purchasing a community center and obtaining funds to rehabilitate homes in the area. The most noted of projects was an elevated crosswalk over the railroad tracks near the junior high school.

“Half of the student body lived on the other side of the railroad tracks and the students were crossing the tracks and jumping the trains to get to school,” Tillman said.

Besides dealing with the trains, students also had to jump a creek. Tillman lost a student his second or third year at Rowan, when a student tried to retrieve a shoe from the creek. She was swept away in the water and drowned, he said.

“That really energized me to try and get as much support and help as I could to help improve the quality of life in that neighborhood,” Tillman said.

In 1981 the crosswalk was completed and opened. The community, in appreciation of Tillman’s efforts, named it the Charles H. Tillman Pedestrian Crosswalk. Twenty-six years later, the crosswalk still provides a vital service to students and members of the community.

“We got the students to respect the school and respect coming to school,” Tillman said. “If we had any problems, I was out there and I would visit the homes.”

Tillman was there for his students in school and out of school. If a student found trouble outside of school and was arrested, Tillman was there at the hearing to talk with the judge and decide if that student was worth helping.

“I would make sure they would come to school,” Tillman said. “Word got around, if they messed up ‘Mr. Tillman would come get you.'”

The system really worked for Tillman and the community.

“I had 10 rich years in that community,” he said with pride.

Tillman spent the last 10 years of his career in education at Brinkly Middle School before retiring.

After Tillman retired from the school system, Mayor Robert Johnson asked if he would accept an appointment to the school board, Tillman said.

“I thought about it,” he said. “I eventually agreed.”

He then spent the next seven or so years as a member of the school board. Four years as appointed by Mayor Johnson and another two to three years completing Dr. Dennis Holloway’s term.

“After that the people of my ward came to me and wanted me to run for city councilman,” Tillman said.

Tillman explained to them he wanted to retire.

“They told me I’m in good shape and every where I’ve gone I’ve made a difference and you’re concerned about the people and you’re dignified and professional and what we’re looking for,” he said.

And at the last hour and the last minute, on the last day to qualify, Tillman did just that and won the vote for his ward.

He has since been Jackson’s Ward Five Councilman ever since. “It’s good being a councilman and I enjoy working with the people,” Tillman said in the 2007 interview.

Tillman is the brother of James Tillman, who was the Brookhaven Public Schools assistant superintendent.

Editor’s Note: Information for the above story was reprinted from a 2007 Focus interview with Charles Tillman by then Lifestyles Editor Tammie Brewer.