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Bertha's Story

Bailey: Poor and 17, she became a mom — to another woman’s baby

North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess with his mother

North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess with his mother, Albertha Burgess Jamison.

Will Reggie Burgess, North Charleston’s police chief, be the city’s next mayor? As good a storyline as that would be, it pales next to the incredible one of the mom who, against all odds, got him here.

It’s a Mother’s Day story for the ages — the kind of story that reminds us that America, for all our intractable problems, is still a place we should be darn grateful to call home. "God is good," Reggie Burgess’s momma would say.

Albertha B. ("B for Burgess," she insists) Jamison sits at her dining-room table in a small house in Liberty Hill, North Charleston’s oldest African American neighborhood, and unwinds the tale of how a 17-year-old girl living with her grandmother brought home another woman’s baby to raise. And how that baby, improbably, grew up to be the police chief in her hometown. And may one day be mayor.

Listen to her story and tell me: Who would bet against this family and the values that made them?

What Bertha Burgess remembers most about growing up as the middle child of nine living in the Daniel Jenkins housing project and Union Heights in the '50s was that she was "nobody’s favorite." Her mother was married at 14, had a baby at 15, went through a couple of husbands, including a drunk who beat her up. "I love you" wasn’t something Bertha heard often.

Her first duty as a mom was to make sure her children were never in doubt. "Your momma loves you," the chief remembers the kids being told every time they left the house.

Bertha’s mom worked hard, though. There was no bus, so every morning her mom walked the 4½ miles from the projects to The Citadel, where she worked in the kitchen. She walked home, too, bringing the kids leftovers. And then, when Bertha was 13, someone bought her mom a bus ticket to work in a home in New York — a "sleep-in job," they called it — and she never returned.

It was their grandmother, "Momma Janie," who raised all those kids after that. "What I learned from her was hard work," she says. "If you want something, you have to earn it."

That lesson has been the cornerstone of the Burgess family success.

Bertha was 17 and in high school when Reggie came into her life. She had known Reggie’s birth mother all her life — a nice person, but a woman who didn’t want to be burdened with kids and already had given away her first three. When Reggie was born, Bertha was his babysitter until she came to the apartment after school to learn the mom had given him away, too. Bertha went and got him.

"When you love someone, you just love them," she said.

They have been together ever since. Momma Janie said she could keep Reggie as long as she could contribute to the household. So she cooked and washed dishes on the overnight shift at a restaurant, taking Reggie with her and putting him on a quilt while she worked.

She would often go straight from her job to high school. When her 11th grade teacher insisted young ladies needed to wear stockings, she explained she was too tired to change after washing dishes all night and they could take their rules and shove them. She quit and got a GED later.

At 18, Bertha dreamed of her own place. Her brother told her only prostitutes lived on their own, but Bertha ignored him and moved into the George Legare projects, built as Navy housing during World War II. She had one bed, which she shared with Reggie, and a table a friend had given her. It didn’t matter.

"I felt it was pretty because it was mine," she says.

Bertha worked three jobs to pay the bills. If she was short at the end of the month, she would sell her blood for $25. She never took welfare or food stamps.

A natural mother, Bertha saw her family grow. Brian was born. She picked up four other kids, all girls, when their mothers in the projects decided Bertha would be a better mother than they would. A white mother asked Bertha to take her daughter, too.

"No, no, no. Not in those days," says Reggie. Bertha called the cops.

The kids never went to sleep hungry; mom, though, sometimes didn’t eat until she got to her restaurant job the next day. "We had the best of everything living in conditions some would call squalor," says Reggie, wiping back tears. "We didn’t know. We didn’t know."

Then Willie Jamison, who she knew from Bonds Wilson High, came courting. Bertha then had six kids and was living in the projects. That didn’t scare him off; he knew what he wanted, and he wanted Bertha Burgess.

They were married for more than 40 years. Bertha calls him "the love of my life." Reggie calls him "a man’s man" who taught him how to live his life right. "The Old Man," as Reggie called him, worked at the paper mill and lived the last 12 years of his life with someone else’s heart in his chest.

Together, Bertha and Willie raised three boys: Reggie, the police chief; Brian, a North Charleston firefighter; and Keith, the youngest, who spent 23 years in the Marines and now works for the city building department. Brian later died tragically. The four girls Bertha took in were eventually reunited with their own mothers.

"Everything was a lesson," Reggie says of growing up in that house.

Treat people like you would want to be treated. You have to work for what you want; there are no freebies in life. Manners and respect will take you further than money. Learn to give, and then learn to give unconditionally. God will provide.

Momma was strict, old school. "I told my boys, ‘If I see you ain’t no good, I’m going to shoot you and put you out of your misery because you have to be in misery if you ain’t no good.'"

Today, at 74, she lives alone in the same Liberty Hill neighborhood, in the same small house where she has lived since Reggie was in the third grade. She has survived two strokes and three heart attacks, has diabetes, uses a walker and falls a lot.

But she has no intention of moving, either. Burgess knows all too much about the violence that infests his city; he doesn’t worry at all about his mother’s safety. Who would mess with the Chief’s mom?

"I’m letting nothing happen to her," he says. "No, no, no."

Says his mom: "We have all these shootings because parents are not doing their job. You have to raise them with love."

She is a proud mom and worried when her son became police chief. She’s not crazy, either, about him running for mayor, but she is sure he will do his best if he does.

"If Mayor Summey doesn’t run, and the citizens of North Charleston ask me, I will consider it," Burgess says. "I am not saying yes. I am not saying no."

Regardless of what his future holds, this much he knows: Two women, Momma Janie and his mom, made him what he is today.

"These two built me."

Happy Mother’s Day to Albertha Burgess Jamison and all the other moms out there, the most important people in the world. Thank you for all you do.

Steve Bailey can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.

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