An 11-year-old New Iberia girl’s passion for her great grandfather’s civil rights legacy translated into $1,000 and the top elementary level prize in an international competition. 

Chloe Willis, a sixth-grader at Jefferson Island Road Elementary in New Iberia, had the first inkling her great grandfather, the Rev. T.J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, was someone consequential in the third grade, when she learned he knew civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and saw a photo of the men together. 

Her mother, Tamekia Livingston-Willis, said she slowly fed tidbits about Jemison’s life to Chloe as she grew old enough to understand, and eventually her interest took off. Chloe said it was amazing to learn her ordinary family had an extraordinary history. 

Jemison was a Baton Rouge pastor who led the city’s 1953 bus boycott, where Black residents who made up the bulk of the city’s bus ridership protested segregation rules that barred them from sitting in front of White riders, forcing many Black riders to stand behind empty seats. The move forced changes to seating rules and made progress for Black residents. 

Notably, the boycott served as a blueprint for King’s 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and Jemison advised King as to what made their approach successful, per an Advocate article marking Jemison’s death in 2013. Jemison also served as president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the nation’s oldest and largest African American religious convention. 

“The entire family is so proud. It means a lot to the entire family...to see a child as young as Chloe take interest in wanting to know more about history and specifically about her great grandfather,” she said. “We all know he would be so proud of her.” 

Chloe submitted her great grandfather’s story to the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes’ Discovery Award competition. The nonprofit, based in Fort Scott, Kansas, works to highlight the lives of people who “have made a profound and positive impact on history, yet are largely unrecognized by contemporary generations,” a release said

Chloe was named this year’s Outstanding Elementary School project winner in a surprise Zoom interview arranged by her teacher adviser, Margaret Simon. During the call, her parents, grandparents and Iberia Parish School District leadership slipped into the room to share the surprise. 

“My mind was in space. I was just really excited and thankful that I had a teacher who influenced me to do it and that I didn’t give up on it, because I would have regretted it if I had,” Chloe said. 

“Seeing her so poised and being able to answer those questions on the spot like that, my husband and I still pinch ourselves,” Livingston-Willis said. 

Chloe’s mother said the moment made her teary eyed. The 11-year-old reminds her of her late grandfather; they both are passionate about serving others and approach life with humility, she said. 

“[My grandfather] always had it in his heart to help others and Chloe is the exact same way,” she said.

Top stories in Acadiana in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

It took a lot of hard work to earn the recognition, Chloe and Simon said. 

Simon, a gifted and talented educator, had submitted to the Lowell Milken Center’s contest before and recommended it as an outlet for Chloe to share her great grandfather’s legacy. The sixth-grader began the project in February and submitted her finished documentary and essay in June. 

Staying focused was sometimes a challenge, Chloe said, especially as her peers geared up for the summer break, while she continued to spend free time tweaking the project to ensure each video segment, voice over and photo told the story she wanted to share.

The work came with its fair share of learning curves, they said. 

Neither teacher nor pupil had experience in video editing before taking on the documentary and Simon said this was one of Chloe’s first in-depth experiences with research and attributing materials. Chloe said she sourced materials from the LSU Libraries system, WBRZ in Baton Rouge, her family and other outlets, including a photographer the duo tracked down whose photo of King and Jemison the 11-year-old wanted to incorporate in the film. 

Simon said she helped with phone calls and tracking down sources, like the photographer. The mentee and adviser also served as accountability partners, offering encouraging words and not letting each other give up. Chloe said she’s proud she stuck with the project and got the word out about her great grandfather.

Jemison died when Chloe was three years old and she said researching his life helped her understand him and her family better. 

“I felt like I knew him better and I felt like he was telling me to do more stuff to influence the world,” she said. 

Simon, a 35-year veteran educator, has been Chloe’s gifted teacher since the first grade and the educator said she’s seen the 11-year-old grow into a conscientious girl who always puts forth her best effort, isn’t afraid to challenge herself and wants to be a positive influence on others. Her self-confidence has grown tremendously throughout this project, the educator said. 

This is the duo’s last year together in the classroom and Simon said while it’s bittersweet, it’s the most positive end she could hope for. 

“She’s more like a daughter to me than a student,” she said. 

“Ending on such a high note is really about the best I could ever expect to happen...To have such a talent and to feel like you’ve had a real hand in nurturing that talent is very powerful and it inspires me,” Simon said. 


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com