Maleka Jackson was the glue.
Whenever sorority sisters who lived in Atlanta needed to get together, it was Jackson who organized the gatherings.
Golf. Dinners. Alumni events. Jackson was, friends said, the unofficial president of the unofficial Atlanta alumni chapter of Tennessee State University’s Alpha Psi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
That is why Aja Mann texted her on Friday. Mann had somehow missed out on getting the new sorority chapter T-shirt the sisters wore for the TSU national alumni convention in June.
“I jokingly sent her a message about the shirts,” said Mann, who was initiated into the Alpha Psi chapter along with Jackson in the fall of 1999.
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Jackson’s two-sentence response from the Bahamas, where she and her husband were celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary, would be the last time the two communicated.
“I love you,” she told Mann in the 4 p.m. text. “I am going back to the beach now.”
Hours later, Jackson was dead. She was 39.
According to officials, Jackson and her husband Tiran were on a small tour boat with 10 others when it exploded about 9 a.m. Saturday off the coast of Exuma, which is 130 miles south of Nassau. Tiran Jackson was badly burned in the explosion, had a leg amputated and is “fighting for his life” in a Florida hospital.
A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Jackson moved to Atlanta about a decade ago, said several of her sorority sisters who live in the Atlanta area.
“The irony of her death is she is doing something she loved with the love of her life,” said Natasha Wilder, another line sister who lives in Stone Mountain.
Wilder, who is president of the Briar Vista Elementary PTA, said she and Jackson had several long conversations about their respective PTAs and how to navigate a work and life balance – something she said Jackson was able to achieve.
Jackson was the 2017-18 president of the Mill Creek Middle School PTSA in Woodstock, where her 12-year-old son is a rising seventh-grader, according to a post on the group’s Facebook page.
“She wanted to be hands on in her son’s life and in our lives,” Wilder said. “I sometimes find myself so engrossed in family and work that I can’t do everything, and she always understood that.”
Jada Wright Nichols, who also lives in Atlanta, saw that early on. Wright was leaving TSU when Jackson arrived as a freshman.
“I was her peer counselor and mentor and I identified her as someone who had limitless potential. Even as a freshman,” Wright said. “Being able to witness her reach even beyond that potential over the last 20 years has been a privilege.”
Days before their trip, Jackson and her husband dropped Cameron off with family in Tennessee. Melvin Grimes told the Fox affiliate in Chattanooga, it was difficult explaining his daughter’s death to his grandson, but Cameron understands the "eternal place of his mom."
The cause of the explosion has not been determined, according to ABC News. Exuma police are leading the investigation.
Video filmed from a nearby boat showed tourists jumping into the water in an attempt to rescue passengers in the burning boat, ABC News reported. The footage also showed thick, black smoke pouring into the sky and large flames shooting from the boat.
A total of nine people were injured in the explosion, according to ABC News. Jackson was the only confirmed fatality.
She was described in a statement from the Cherokee County School District as a “wonderful mom, volunteer and leader, who cared so much for her community and its children and teachers.”
Superintendent Brian Hightower asked the district to “keep the Jacksons in their hearts and prayers and support them in this time of need.”
More than $60,000 in donations have already poured in since a GoFundMe page was created to benefit the family. The goal is $100,000.
Tiran Jackson, according to the Mill Creek PTSA, “has a long road ahead, which will include multiple surgeries and physical therapy.”
A vigil began at 8 p.m. Tuesday on the tennis court of the family’s Lakestone subdivision, which is near the local Walmart on Ga. 92, according to the PTSA.
Jackson’s sorority sisters are planning a vigil of their own on July 8 at the Briar Vista Elementary School Sports Court, 1131 Briar Vista Terrace NE, in Atlanta.
They plan on gathering at 6 p.m., and in a nod to the sorority’s founding in 1908, start the vigil at 7:08 (19:08) p.m.
Concurrent vigils will be held in Nashville, Memphis, Charlotte, Dallas and Houston.
“This doesn’t seem real to me,” Mann said. “I don’t know when it will become real. But we will continue her legacy.”