Born on May 30, 1893, Annie B. Willis, devoted much of her life to the work of her father, Joseph F. Jordan, one of the first black Universalist ministers. Annie grew and learned under his tutelage at the Suffolk Normal Training School, a project funded by the Universalist General Convention, and the most successful of three Negro missions. When her father died in 1929, Willis took on the role of superintendent at the age of 36. She had been teaching in the school prior to then, and the family tradition continued with Willis’s own daughter Dorothy also becoming a teacher there. Willis held the institution together through the Depression. Instilling a sense of self-respect and pride in her students from an early age, Willis had as many as 210 students while the staff sometimes was reduced to three functioning in a dilapidated building with few books in an era of profound racism. The school became known as “Miss Annie’s,” and operated on a shoestring budget. In 1938 the Young People’s Christian Union made the school one of their service projects, and later the Association of Universalist Women (AUW) provided funds to give Willis a full time assistant.
When public school opportunities became more prevalent for black children, the grades were phased out in 1939 and 1940, and the institution became known as the Jordan Neighborhood House, providing many social services. The kindergarten continued to operate, and there were also programs for small children, which now included a day care and nursery school. A prenatal and well-baby clinic had been started in the 1920’s. In the 1960’s Willis helped oversee the first Head Start program for preschoolers. Universalist affiliation continued until 1969 with close supervision and support. Willis retired from the school in 1974, but remained closely affiliated until her death on February 1, 1977. She gave her last words of direction to her successor on the night before she died, “Watch out for my children.”
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