Imagene Stewart had many battles to fight. She came armed with a life long cache of compassion. Her morale was high. Surrounded by the mighty fortress of God, she fought against the mortal enemies of time and apathy. Where she felt pain, she healed it. Where she sensed loneliness, she comforted it. Where she saw an American flag, she saluted it. She proved the point that you can proudly hold the American flag real high with one hand and reach way down with the other to held a friend in need.
Born Imagene Bigham in Dublin, Georgia on September 23, 1942, Imagene learned the foundation of her life from her parents, Rev. J.C. Bigham and Mattie Watkins Bigham, who married in Laurens County, Georgia on November 28, 1941. Imagene married Lucius Johnson on August 11, 1958. After her marriage to Lucius "L.C." Johnson ended, she lived in public housing in H.T. Jones Village with her mother, and her two sons, Michael Tyrone Johnson and Jeffrey Lorenzo Johnson. She worked a domestic servant just like her mother. Imagene learned all too well of the injustices of life in the country in the fifties and early sixties. She participated in many civil rights marches in Dublin with the Bates sisters.
It was in 1963 when she began to prepare for the battles to come. She traveled to Washington, D.C. with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a member of the Georgia delegation on the March on Washington. She stayed in Washington and was an active member of the the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Recently, she told a reporter for The Pentagram, " I came here to fight racial injustice. I thought that white people were against me, but I realized that there were blacks against me too."
As more and more veterans of the Vietnam War came home, she realized that many of them had no home to come home to. In 1972, she opened a shelter for homeless veterans. " It seemed like some people forgot the Vietnam veterans," said Rev. Stewart, an ordained Baptist minister. She continued, " Those people gave us the freedoms we enjoy everyday. They are the life-line of this country."
Stewart, a harsh critic of the Veterans Administration for its seemingly uncaring treatment of homeless and helpless veterans and their families, refused to accept donations from the federal government. "Veterans are discarded by the military. The country does nothing for its homeless veterans," she said. She accused many other similar shelter operators of bilking the government of funds without really caring for the veterans. Following the success of her six-family center on P Street in Washington, D.C., she opened a ten-family shelter in the Suitland section of the city.
In her twenty room House of Imagene, she provided bunk beds for twenty five people.
There were occasions when veterans came in with the grandchildren, who have been left in their custody by neglective parents. Rev. Stewart welcomed them all with open arms. For more than three decades, she served meals on Thanksgiving Day to the homeless. Thanksgiving Day 2003, when her shelter served three thousand meals, was the last time her shelter served the homeless on Thanksgiving. When her health and her age began to fail her, Stewart kept on giving of all of her self that she could.
Imagene married Albert Stewart, a veteran of the Korean War. Both of her sons served in the military. Imagene told the reporter from the Pentagram, " I always wanted to be a soldier, but in those days the military rarely accepted teenage mothers." She keeps close to the military as much as she can. She visits the wounded and maimed soldiers who are being sent from Iraq to Walter Reed Hospital. "They are babies, 18- and 19-year-olds without arms and legs. What are they going to do when they try to pick up their lives?" she wonders. She has served as Chaplain of the Tuskegee Airman Civil Air Patrol at Andrews Air Force Base.
Mrs. Stewart served as the National Vice President of the Eastern Division of the American Legion Auxiliary from 2000 to 2001. She served as president of her local legion auxiliary as well as on the executive board of D.C. Veterans & Auxiliaries Council Veterans Against Drugs. She has been a member of the U.S. Air Force Mother''s Club, American War Mothers and Amvets Auxiliary. In addressing the convention of the American Legion in 2001, she commented on the suggestion that blacks pledge allegiance to Africa and not the American flag, she brought forth a thunderous standing ovation when she told the gathering of veterans, "Well, honey, I ain''t never been to Africa. . . I was born in the United States of America, very proudly." She has been named by the National President of the Legion Auxiliary as "An Angel in Action" for her decades of showing mercy to homeless veterans.
Stewart was consecrated presiding Bishop of the African American Women's Clergy Association during a Women's History Month celebration March 2, 1996 at the Chapel of Hope, Shilo Baptist Church. She is a pastor of the Greater Pearly Gate Full Gospel Baptist Church, Bishop Stewart was the first African-American minister elected National Chaplain to the American Legion Auxiliary.
Bishop Stewart was awarded numerous accolades for her community service. In 1991, she was commended by President Bush for efforts in meeting the needs of homeless veterans. The next year, she was awarded the prestigious " Living the Dream Award" for her service to battered women. Oh yes, the House of Imagene takes in victims of domestic violence in the D.C. Area. Are you surprised? In 2000, she was awarded a Leadership Award by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. She has been commended by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has provided his own support of homeless veterans in Washington. On Feb. 8, 2004, she was awarded a community service award by Fort Myer, which Bishop Stewart calls a "thankless job, but somebody has to do it." In her spare time, Bishop Stewart hosted a Sunday morning radio talk show on WOL 1450 AM in Washington, D.C., where she was known to her listeners as "The Georgia Peach."
For decades, Bishop Stewart was a leading advocate for a constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from desecration. Despite the fact that most states have asked the Congress to adopt such an amendment, the Congress has failed to act. She served on the board of the Citizens Flag Alliance and urged her listeners to speak out in favor of the amendment to protect the flag.
While Imagene had long been an advocate for the rights of her people, she didn't consider herself an African-American. "Some people tell me my allegiance should be to Africa," she told the Pentagram reporter. "I'm from the USA. I'm an American," she proudly proclaimed. She is often criticized for her support of President George W. Bush, but that doesn't mean she isn't an advocate for social rights. She always has been there to defend and promote the rights of all persons. She has adopted a policy of "love one, love all." She supports President Bush for his strong stance in protecting the freedoms which we enjoy today.
The Rev. Imagene Stewart died in the spring of 2012.
Sam Ford of ABC news in Washington was eternally moved by what he saw in Imagene. "I first met her nearly 30 years ago when I moved to Washington and came to her House of Imagene shelter to do a story on helping the needy at Thanksgiving. I'll never forget her words in the interview. She said she moved to DC from Dublin, Georgia and that she herself had been homeless at one point, sleeping on benches in Lincoln Park. And she told "God and two or three other people" that if she ever got on her feet she was going to help others. And she did. She ran a house for battered women," Ford recalled of his dear friend.
This is the story of Imagene Bigham Stewart, the compassionate warrior, the little black girl from Dublin, Georgia who went to Washington and spent the best years of her lives making a difference in the country she so proudly loved.