Jesse Champion

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Jesse Champion

Jesse Champion (born 1927 in Dolomite; died November 2, 2007 in Birmingham) was a pioneering African-American radio announcer, teacher and jazz vocalist. He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997.

Champion grew up in Birmingham. He attended Catholic schools and graduated from Industrial High School in 1945. He earned his bachelor degree from Alabama A&M University, earning money by singing at campus events. He was a charter member of that campus' chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. While at A&M he met and married fellow student Wilhelmenia Lenud.

After graduation, Champion served in the Navy, then returned to Alabama to teach in the Gadsden school system. Champion also taught grade school at Councill School in Birmingham from 1954 to 1963. At the same time he worked as one of the first black news announcers on Birmingham radio, broadcasting at WJLD-AM. He was recruited into radio by general manager Otis Dodge who heard him singing with his "Jazz Workshop" at the A. G. Gaston Motel. Champion delivered news reports and also hosted late night dance music programs.

In April 1963 Champion, on his way to Holy Family Hospital to visit his wife and newborn daughter, saw one of his students in the back of a car with two white boys. He followed and, when they stopped, he interfered with what they told him was a citizens' arrest for theft. He helped the boy out of the car, after which he fled. Champion was then arrested by Birmingham Police at the direction of Bull Connor. His case was used to set an example that public employees should not get involved in Civil Right matters. He was charged with "inciting to riot" and spent a few hours in jail. He was convicted and forced to resign his faculty position. Connor instructed him to leave the city,.

Champion relocated to the midwest where he entered graduate school at Notre Dame and the University of Michigan. He taught at Southwestern High School and a junior college in Flint, Michigan until 1970, when he returned to Birmingham.

Beginning that year, Champion took the job of news announcer and community affairs director at WERC-AM, where he stayed until his retirement in 1990. He also reported on community affairs for WKXX-FM. Later in life he worked as an attendant at Bushelon Funeral Home for many years.

A lifelong member of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, Champion was an active member of the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Columbus. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Parker High School United Alumni Association. He was a featured vocalist with the Birmingham Heritage Band, leading to his induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame.

Champion died in November 2007. He was survived by three children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was interred at Elmwood Cemetery.


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