From his seat on the bench of the City of St. Louis’ Circuit Court, Judge Jimmie Edwards had just about seen it all: He has presided over trials involving the most heinous of crimes—and he has sentenced to people to death. Many of the accused who have been brought before his court were the dregs of society, but he says the irony in all of it was that too often, he saw himself. “But for the grace of God that would have been me.”
Edwards, who now sits on the Juvenile Court bench, says that when he saw the hopelessness of the children brought before him, he decided he had to do something more.
With the help of the St. Louis Public Schools, Mayor Francis Slay, Mers Goodwill and countless volunteers and benefactors, Edwards opened Innovative Concept Academy, an alternative school for kids who are too troubled for traditional schools. Occupying the old Blewett School, the Academy is a place where the most troubled kids have a chance to learn, grow and escape the condemnation of a life of crime.
The judge splits his days between hearing cases in court and making sure the school is operating as it should. He is at the school every morning to greet students and staffers. “It’s never lost on me that most of the kids we see are so hopeless. We all embody the hopes of these children, and the only thing I want for them is that they find hope,” Edwards says. “If they can find hope, it will give them determination greater than they’ve ever had to turn their lives around.”
Edwards says he prays that the children he sees at the school will be given the same kind of hope that he found—a hope that changed his life forever. Born in 1955 at the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, Edwards lived there until he was 6 years old. His mother and father were married, but Edwards says his father ultimately abandoned his then-pregnant wife and her four children. “The only thing I had was a family who loved me. I never had anything material, and I never understood that there was a different world beyond the ghetto that we lived in.”
The young Jimmie Edwards says he did have one other thing, a teacher who was willing to get involved. “His name was Lawrence Wooten, who is now Bishop Lawrence Marcella Wooten in the AME Church. He was my fourth-grade teacher at Curtis Elementary School.” Edwards says it was Wooten who convinced him that his only chance to achieve anything in life was through education. He stayed in school, graduated from Vashon High School, earned a scholarship to Saint Louis University and then graduated from law school. It is a story of determination that brought him from the depths of humanity to a seat on the bench and the never-ending quest to make the lives of ‘his kids’ better.
Edwards’ work with the Academy has caught the attention of people across the country. He’s been featured in national publications, all lauding him for the success of the school and its students. The judge is humbled by all the accolades, but also is hopeful that the interest will lead to more help for children who need it most. “What it’s doing is creating a dialogue about how to deal with incorrigible, disadvantaged or delinquent children.” Edwards says he isn’t naïve enough to believe that all troubled kids can be helped by this type of program, noting that he still has to send many of them away. “None of my kids will ever tell you that the judge is soft; they will tell you that he’s consistent, that he’s tough, and they will tell you that he cares.”
Edwards cares enough to spend most of his time trying to help change lives; and almost every day, Edwards still sees shadows of himself. ”Many of the children started off life just like me, invisible to society and living in a world that offered no meaningful future. They have been the victims of generational ignorance, criminality and negative socialization. But none of these kids are born ignorant, none of them are born criminals, so none of them should be invisible.”
Thanks to the judge, they aren’t.