Biography: Jessie Mae Meadows was born to Eddie Mills Sr. and Bessie Harding Mills on January 16, 1927, in New Bern, North Carolina. She was the oldest of four children, Jessie, Helen, Eddie Jr., and William.
Jessie Mae graduated from West Street High School in New Bern. She worked on her grandfather's farm in Dover, North Carolina, feeding the chickens, and in fact she nicknamed her baby brother William “Chick,” because that's what he sounded like to her when he cried. Her mother and father had a restaurant in New Bern, and she also worked there.
Chick says when she was a young girl, she worked with her sister Helen in Dover on her grandfather's farm proofing tobacco. He tells the story that one day Jessie Mae dropped a watermelon on the farm, it split open, and Grandpa Farrell Mills made her eat the whole thing!
She married James Willis in New Bern, and in 1946 their first child, Inell Willis, was born. Their second child, James William Willis, was born in New Bern. The family moved to New York City in the early 1950s, where Eddie Lee Willis and Michael Oliver Willis were born. A second daughter, Jessica Willis, was born in 1966.
Once in New York, Jessie Mae began work for the Criterion Jewelry Company in Long Island City, where her father drove a green truck. She also worked in dress shops up and down Madison Avenue and did domestic work throughout the city. In the early 1960s, she began work at Memorial Hospital, now Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, where she was a dietician for 17 years.
In 1974, she married Hobson Meadows, who worked as an electrician for Con Edison. Hop's family were all devoted to the church, and she began her life of worship at Downtown Baptist Church in Harlem. Sundays became Church Day for Jessie Mae, and she loved the congregation and the fellowship.
Chick says Jessie Mae was a very good student, and she learned French and loved all things French. She named her daughter Inell after her beloved French teacher.
Her name, Jessie Mae, was unusual when she was born. During her life, though, her name became more and more popular, and when she saw the play “The Trip to Bountiful” by Horton Foote in 2013, she was so excited to see Vanessa Williams playing the character named Jessie Mae in the production starring Cecily Tyson.
Jessie Mae loved her children, and raised them with the values of church, family, honesty, and hard work. She worked while she raised her children, and that ethic was instilled in all her children. She was known for being a stylish dresser, and her closet to this day is filled with beautiful clothes in a perfect size 10. She was always immaculately turned out, like her idol, Lena Horne. Says her niece Ella Marie Sanders (Red), “Head to toe, she stepped out right.”
On a trip to Walt Disney World in 2016, she insisted on wearing a full pantsuit and carrying her big, stylish purse. Three hours later, she was hot and exhausted.
Jessie Mae loved going to the hairdresser, and she loved buying hats. The top shelf of her closet is filled with hat boxes that contain the hats that caught her fancy, with flowers, netting, wide brims, narrow brims, and pillboxes.
The first time Jessie Mae flew in an airplane was a trip to San Francisco in 1971. She loved San Francisco, even though it was one of the coldest summers in memory. She couldn't believe how cold it was! “Where is sunny California?” she kept asking.
Jessie Mae was one of the best back-seat drivers ever, sitting in the front seat and instructing, “Watch out for that truck! Didn't you see that car?!”
Jessie Mae loved cats, and her cat Toby was named for the character Toby in “Roots.”
Jessie Mae was fiery, full of love, and a source of inspiration and love to all her children and her granddaughter Alisha, whom she raised from infancy. Her Maple Plaza neighbors were not only neighbors, but dear friends devoted to her. She was beautiful, with a beautiful smile, and her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and extended family will never forget her.