Born the daughter of educators in segregated Mexia, Texas, in 1941, Mae Allison Johnson developed an early understanding of the significance of education and equality. Her parents, Allison Johnson and Eula King, met while working at a small country school called Salem in Teague, Texas. Together, they instilled the value of learning. At sixteen, Mae Johnson graduated Booker T. Washington High School as valedictorian of her class and attended college at Texas Southern University in Houston. There, fascinated by people and interested in working with others, she first thought she wanted to study sociology, but her desire to work closely with people drove her into the field of social work.
During her collegiate years at Texas Southern, she participated in debate and public speaking, traveling across Texas and around the country for competitions. These travel experiences accentuated the prevalence of segregation and discrimination. At a debate competition at Baylor University, Johnson recalled that they stayed in segregated, lower-scale housing near Paul Quinn College and remembered white Wacoans hurling insults and spitting at the Texas Southern students. These racist encounters reinforced her interest in pursuing justice, especially at the local level.
After briefly working at Riverside National Bank, the first African American-owned bank in Houston, she decided to take a social work position at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, now part of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Her work there motivated her to return to school, and she graduated from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio with a master’s degree in social work in 1965. Afterward, she relocated to Waco to be near her ailing mother in Teague, and as her mother’s health improved, Johnson moved to work in the civil rights movement.
Previously, while at Texas Southern, she helped connect those arrested in sit-ins to defense attorneys and managed funds for movement efforts. Then, in 1969, she joined the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and moved to Mississippi until 1971. Under the auspices of the NCNW, she sought to provide public housing for Mississippians in need, working alongside women like Fannie Lou Hamer in Indianola. Her work at the grassroots further cultivated her desire to serve local communities and meet their needs in tangible ways.
Johnson later returned to Waco, worked for the local Methodist Home, and decided to pursue her doctorate. She graduated with a PhD from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1985. As her professional life progressed, she also married Howard Andrew Jackson, with whom she had a stepdaughter, foster son, adopted daughter, and biological daughter. Motivated by her work in the civil rights movement and with the NCNW, Dr. Mae Jackson grew active in the local Democratic Party. She campaigned for Texas Democrats, including Governor Ann Richards, who later appointed Jackson to the Texas State Board of Pardons and Paroles. There, she aimed to improve racist parole policies in Texas prisons by addressing prison overcrowding, harmful living conditions, and a lack in resources needed to care for incarcerated people.
Locally, she served on the Waco City Council, District I, from 2000 to 2004 before she won the mayoral election in May 2004. Dr. Mae Jackson was the first African American woman to become mayor of Waco. During her time in office, she sought to promote education, economic development, and tourism. She sought to upgrade Waco’s Central Library, expand job opportunities in the city, rejuvenate the downtown area, and renovate the convention center. Further, she hoped to better Waco’s water quality and create improved, equitable housing. Sadly, she passed away during her first term on February 11, 2005, leaving a community in mourning. While her political career was cut short, her legacy lives on. Elected to the Waco City Council in 2018, her daughter, Andrea Jackson Barefield, represents District I. Local government leaders regularly meet in the Dr. Mae Jackson Development Center on Franklin Avenue, named in memoriam, and participate in organizations like the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance, formed from Jackson’s vision for education improvement in McLennan County. Dr. Mae Jackson’s influence on the city persists, along with her visions for equality, improved education, and justice for those in Waco, in Texas, and across the country.