Before Katherine Jackson moved to Madison, her soon-to-be husband was already here attending school. She decided to join him in 1974 and they were married by 1976. Katherine and her husband, Larry Jackson, raised five children on the south side of Madison, and Jackson didn’t even know that saving lives would be part of her future.
Growing up in Rosedale, Mississippi, it didn’t even cross her mind to even become a firefighter. After moving to Madison, she worked at General Motors in Janesville.
“It’s not like I grew up, all my life, ‘Oh I want to be a firefighter,’” she says. “No, I had a job, I was making good money to take care of my family. And some friends of mine, some guy friends that I went to church with, told me I should try out. But they had been telling me that for like five years before I actually tried.”
And when she did try, it was just “on a whim.”
After she passed the written exam she had to take a physical test and once she passed that, then came the interview. But that wasn’t all, after going through the written/physical test and interview, there was 15 weeks of training. During those 15 weeks every Monday, Wednesday and Friday she went through fire department training, leaving EMS (Emergency Medical Service) training for Tuesday and Thursday. It was a different kind of job — and the transition wasn’t east.
“I had always been a laborer, you know, worked with my hands,” she says. “And now I’m taking a job where I basically have to go back to school.”
At the time, she didn’t even know she’d be breaking down barriers.
“As I got toward the end of the class, I think somebody mentioned it to me that if I made it through, I would be the first African American female,” she says.
She did make it through, and she was the first.
Jackson doesn’t recall any overt racism from her new colleagues, but, she says, “There were a few of the, you know, they call them ‘old timers.’ They weren’t too trusting at first, but eventually I won their trust.”
That was a critical step, Jackson says.
“It’s a job where we depend on each other with our lives when we are going into a burning building, they needed to be confident that if we went into a burning building that I could get them out, so I understood their skepticism,” she says.
Their skepticism didn’t knock her confidence because she understood where they were coming from. “Of course, you know, there were those who had their doubts of whether I would be able to toe the line, I guess,” she says, “I had no doubts about my physical ability. I had always been physically fit. That wasn’t a concern for me. But there’s a lot of information once you get out of training, you still had to go through apprenticeship. There was a lot of information you had to learn real fast. That was was kind of scary, a little bit, having to grasp all that. Training went real fast, you know, they pushed a lot of information at you in a short amount of time.”
For Jackson’s first six years of being a firefighter she was located at Station 6 on Badger Road. “You did move around some until you kind of got a little seniority,” she says, “then you could pick. My first six years I was at the same station, which was not always the case with a lot of people. Number 6 on Badger Road had specialty teams, so the people who wanted to be there, they kept them there.”
The schedule was a big change for her. “It was different because I was used to working eight hours or ten hours a day, then I would come home” she says, “ When I got on the fire department, my schedule totally changed. I would work 24 hours, then come home for 24 hours. It was a real adjustment but between me and my husband we figured it out”
Being a firefighter takes dedication, and long hours and isn’t very often a happy job.
“I did see a lot of tragic stuff in my job as a firefighter,” she says. “I’m not coming when things are going well for you, I’m coming when something went wrong…. You are seeing people at some tragic times in their life.” Jackson was able to take on the challenges and she did her best at it. Not only did she save lives but she also blessed the stations with her cooking from time to time, being one of the cooks at each station she worked at.
After 18 years Jackson threw in the towel and decided to retire. “I injured my knees. They wasn’t getting any better. They were getting worse. I just figured it was time to go,” she says.
Jackson would have tried to push 21 years of service, “If my knees didn’t start deteriorating, I would have pushed it another three years,” she says.
Now that all of her children are well grown, taking on their own paths of success she spends most of her time with her husband and her grandchildren, and volunteering at True Worshippers Community Church, where her husband is pastor.
“I do a lot of stuff with our church. I spend a lot of time with my grandkids,” she says. “It just gave me a lot of freedom to do what i want to do. I’ve never known that. Whenever I was on vacation it’s always in the back of my mind, you know, ‘gotta get back because of the job.’ To not have to think about that has given me a great deal of freedom.”
“I enjoyed my career as a firefighter,” she says, “I was able to help take care of my family and live a decent life, the job was exciting you didn’t know what to expect. One day you might have nothing going on all day, and the next day it’ll be go, go, go all day long. I’m glad I took my friend’s advice and took the test, I don’t regret it at all. I never thought growing up as a little girl in mississippi that I would have had that kind of experience as a job.”
I Am Madison is funded by Madison Community Foundation as part of its Year of Giving.