Steve Jamison built his legacy at Maranatha Faith Center in Columbus, the church he founded and served as pastor for 41 years. The section of Waterworks Road in front of the church bears the name: “Reverend Steven M. Jamison Way.”
But his broader impact in the city began not in the church, but in its parking lot, where a planned church expansion led to the discovery of creosote in the soil, confirming what people in the Memphis Town area of Northside had long suspected.
The discovery that day in 2003 led to an Environmental Protection Agency investigation that exposed widespread contamination, not only at the former Kerr-McGee creosote plant but throughout the adjoining neighborhoods, leading to millions of dollars in compensation for residents and $68 million for clean-up and redevelopment that will likely continue for years to come.
Jamison, who had been suffering from heart disease for the past few years, died Tuesday at age 67 at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.
Although cherished by his church family, it was Jamison’s involvement with the Kerr-McGee saga that made his name known throughout the community.
Upon the discovery of creosote on church property, Jamison began a campaign to hold the owners of the property accountable. Initially, said longtime friend Maurice Webber, Jamison was something of a voice crying in the wilderness.
“He had his detractors at first,” Webber said. “Everybody was saying there was no (contamination), but he didn’t give up. He worked at it tirelessly. He insisted something was wrong and he set out to right a wrong. He was a bulldog. Once he got a hold of something he didn’t let go.”
For 11 years, Jamison led the fight, forming the Memphis Town Community Action Group to push for compensation for victims and clean-up and redevelopment. In 2014, a bankruptcy court awarded $5.15 billion to 24 former Kerr-McGee sites for clean-up and redevelopment, including $64 million for the Columbus site.
Jamison worked just as tirelessly to make sure residents who suffered from health issues linked to the creosote contamination were properly compensated, urging residents to reject initial offers, which he believed to be too low.
“A lot of people still haven’t gotten paid, but Rev. Jamison did everything he could do,” said Marty Turner, who was born, raised and still lives in Memphis Town, serving one term on the city council representing the ward. “He was honest with us. If people can’t recognize what he did for them, I don’t know what to tell them.”
Webber said there was no doubt about Jamison’s impact.
“A of people benefited from it tremendously,” Webber said. “The settlements were bigger and there are still settlements going on today.”
In 2014, the EPA named Jamison’s Memphis Town Community Advisory Group winner of its yearly Citizen Excellence in Community Involvement Award. In 2016, the city of Columbus passed a resolution renaming the section of Waterworks Road between 14th Avenue and Seventh Avenue in Jamison’s honor.
“Pastor Jamison was a brilliant analytical man and used his problem-solving skills from his construction career helping those in our community each day as pastor of Maranatha,” Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said in a prepared statement. “(He) will be missed and I express my condolences to his beloved family, friends, and church family.”
Jamison grew up in Clay County and worked as a master brick mason and a contractor before founding Maranatha Faith Center in 1980. Over the next 41 years, Jamison became a mentor for several church members who would follow his path into the ministry.
One of those young men was Steven L. James, Sr., for whom Jamison was a mentor not only as a pastor but as a businessman.
James began attending Maranatha as an 18-year-old.
“At first, I came for the Bible study led by his sister,” James said. “Then one Sunday morning I went to see how the service was and never left. I was there for 23 1/2 years.”
James said Jamison was an excellent teacher with a gift for making the ancient texts found in the Bible “come to life.”
Now in his 12th year as pastor at United Christian Baptist Church on Yorkville Road, James also owns Hair4u Beauty Supply in the Gateway Shopping Center.
“I went from being a boy to a man sitting under his ministry, not only as a pastor but as a businessman,” James said.
Webber and Jamison cemented their relationship with a mutual love of horses.
“We spent a lot of time together, much of it riding,” Webber said. “He was an avid horseman and we rode all the time. It was our way of having a period of relaxing.”
Both James and Webber noted Jamison’s generosity.
“When I was a young man, I had a wife and a son and was going to school at Mississippi State,” James said. “I had bought a little house and at one point fell behind on my house payments. I didn’t know what to do.
“I went to Rev. Jamison for advice,” he continued. “He asked how much I was behind, and I told him I was six months behind. I didn’t expect him to do anything except give me advice. But he said, ‘If I make four payments, do you think you can come up with two?’ Knowing he was willing to do that made me determined to come up with the two payments, and I did.”
Webber said Jamison’s generosity was well known.
“He couldn’t say no to people when it came to his ministry or the personal lives of people,” Webber said. “When you came to him, he was eager to listen. In short, he put his money where his mouth was. If people needed financial help he would help them, but he helped in other ways, too, through his church. He started an after-school program at the church, put in a computer lab, just a whole host of things.”
James said the continuing clean-up and eventual redevelopment of the old Kerr-McGee site along 14th Avenue North will keep Jamison’s memory alive.
“The work he did for the community is absolutely going to be his legacy,” James said. “People here are going to remember his name forever, I think.”