Paying Tribute to a Remarkable and Talented Aunt

In recognition of Women’s History Month 2017, I wrote this post about my great aunt, Beatrice Jackson Conway. Like her mother, “Momma Addie” Jackson, my aunt was a leader with the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Club, whose motto was “Lifting As We Climb.” In 1917, Aunt Beatrice was an election poll watcher at a school in Harlem, NY for the Suffrage Party (see card below). That was the watershed election that eventually led to women winning the right to vote. An excellent writer, Aunt Beatrice had several letters published in the Tarrytown Daily News. She was also a soloist with the choir at Mother Zion A.M.E. Church in Harlem. Aunt Beatrice did all this and more by the age of 27, when she passed away due to complications from childbirth.beatrice graphic2

Uncle Wesley Jackson: World War I Volunteer and Writer

I want to salute my Grand Uncle Wesley Jackson. Uncle Wesley was the first born of my great grandparents “Momma Addie” Jackson and Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson. In 1917, during WW I, he enlisted in the Army (his original enlistment card is below) where he was a cook, a common duty for black enlistees. While stationed at Camp Hill in Newport News, VA, Uncle Wesley, wrote a “Letter to the Editor” to his hometown newspaper, the Tarrytown (NY) Daily News. As you can tell by the excerpt below, Uncle Wesley was a gifted writer.Uncle Wesley GraphicFollowing his service in the Army and spending time in France as a member of the American Expeditionary Force,  Uncle Wesley was honorably discharged in 1919. He and would later work with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Whitehall, VT and Yorktown, VA. Uncle Wesley died in Appomattox, VA at the age of 46.

 

Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill! Momma Addie is Smiling.

tubman billMy great grandmother, Addie Jackson (or Momma Addie), knew Harriet Tubman. At least I’m pretty sure she did. Here’s why I say that. In the last years of her life, Tubman lived in Auburn, NY, where she’s buried, and her primary caretakers were members of the Empire State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Momma Addie was the financial secretary of the club at the time.Scan0219

The Tubman biography, “Bound for the Promised Land,” says this about the club’s care for Tubman when she was “penniless and ill” at about 90 years old: “Through the efforts of Mary Talbert (the group’s president), the Empire State Women’s Clubs also helped raise funds for Tubman’s care…”

The same biography also says this about Talbert’s relationship with Tubman: “Mary Talbert recalled her last visit with Tubman, about a month before her death. Tubman grasped her hand as she was about to leave, urging her to ‘tell the women to stand together for God will never forsake us.’ ”

Momma Addie: Activist, Organizer, Spokesperson

From serIMG-008ving as a spokesperson for “colored people” in her adopted hometown of Tarrytown, NY, to helping to found a statewide organization for black women, my great grandmother (Momma Addie) was an “activist” in every sense of the word.

As these newspaper clippings from the early 1900s show, Momma Addie’s (Mrs. Clarence Jackson) leadership on the local level included advocating for a community center for Tarrytown’s “colored” residents and chairing the town’s “Colored Republicantarrytown news Club.”

The town’s elected leaders would often turn to Momma Addie for her advice on community and racial matters. According to an early 1900s issue of the Tarrytown Daily News, a member of the committee set up to seek solutions to problems associated with the town’s rapid growth, said he “wished Mrs. Clarence Jackson, a member of the colored race and respected by both races, would give her views on the subject.”

Momma Addie used the opportunity to advocate for the needs of Tarrytown’s black community. “Theretarrytown paper is no recreation for colored boys and girls in Tarrytown. The Civic League does wonderful work, but outside of that there is no means of recreation for us,” she told the committee.

In 1914, Momma Addie would be elected the first president of Tarrytown’s fledgling Colored Community Center. The local newspaper called the establishment of the center “a long felt need among colored people for years.”

It should come as no surprise that Momma Addie and her contemporaries were Republicans. During the early 1900s, most blacks supported what was widely known as “the party of Lincoln.” As a Republican Party activist, Momma Addie helped organize forums to discuss the presidential candidacies of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge.

Writing in a 2013 issue of Politico magazine, Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore and the former dean of the Howard University School of Law, discussed President Coolidge’s speech to the 1924 Howard University Commencement—and its impact on civil rights.

“The 30th president, Republican Calvin Coolidge, was a major supporter of Howard University and an overlooked figure in advancing the cause of racial equality in the United States,” Schmoke wrote.

Here is a segment of Coolidge’s commencement speech: “The nation has need of all that can be contributed to it through the best efforts of all its citizens. The colored people have repeatedly proved their devotion to the high ideals of our country. They gave their services in the war with the same patriotism and readiness that other citizens did …. The propaganda of prejudice and hatred which sought to keep the colored men from supporting the national cause completely failed.”

Momma Addie: The central figure in my family’s history

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My great grandmother Momma Addie with four of her five children: Marie, Beatrice, Clarence and (front) my grandmother Virginia. Circa 1912.

For the past 4-5 years, I’ve been researching my family history. I’ve written about a great-great grandmother who was a slave on a plantation in southwestern Virginia and lived to be 113 years old, and a great grandfather (her son) who helped to found a Baptist church in Tarrytown, NY and in the early 1900s was the chauffeur for the president of New York Central Railroad.

The central figure in my family history is my great grandmother Addie Wilkins Jackson (or “Momma Addie”).  Born in Virginia in 1875, she was in the first wave of African-Americans to leave the South and migrate North following the Civil War. She settled in Tarrytown, NY and married my great grandfather, Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson, in 1893.

As Black History Month comes to a close, I plan to use it as a springboard to telling the story of the contributions of “Momma Addie” and the children she raised.

Growing cotton in New York state

You don’t need to see the movie “12 Years a Slave” to know that Black folks have a history with cotton. Exposed to cotton as a child growing up in Virginia in the 1870s, my great grandfather, Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson, earned newspaper headlines some 70 years later when he planted and grew cotton in New York state.

December 5, 1941,  The Daily News, Tarrytown, NY“Cotton rarely thrives this far north and for the plant to bloom at this time of year is almost unheard of,” a December 1941 newspaper account of “Papa Jack’s” cotton growing skills proclaimed.

Told by family and friends that he couldn’t grow cotton in his backyard in Tarrytown, N. Y., “Papa Jack” set out to prove them wrong. “Mr. Jackson was happy over his success for it meant much satisfaction to him being able to refute the doubting folks who at the start of the season shook their heads and said, ‘Jackson can’t grow cotton up here,’” the 1941 article reported.

“Mr. Jackson only tried growing cotton as a fad, but as he kept cultivating it, the cotton kept growing and blossomed into as fine a plantation as one would find in the heart of the Carolinas or Tennessee,” an article published some years later said.

From this country’s beginnings, cotton was a focal point of the economy. Between 1800 and 1860, slave-produced cotton expanded from South Carolina and Georgia to newly colonized lands west of the Mississippi. This shift of the slave economy from the upper South (Virginia and Maryland) to the lower South was accompanied by a comparable shift of the enslaved African population to the lower South and West. By 1850, 1.8 million of the 2.5 million enslaved Africans employed in agriculture in the United States were working on cotton plantations, according to reports.

As has been said about the 2008 election of Barack Obama, “the hands that picked–and grew–cotton would someday pick a president.” Who knew?

 

Finding–and organizing–a church home in the North

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In the 1880s, my great grandfather, Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson, (center and inset) helped organize Shiloh Baptist Church in Tarrytown, N.Y., serving as its first superintendent

When a son (or daughter) of the South migrated North following the Civil War one of the first things most of them did was find a church home. My great grandfather, Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson, was no exception. In fact, he went a step further. Shortly after arriving in Tarrytown, N.Y., from Virginia in the 1880s, “Papa Jack” helped organize and build Shiloh Baptist Church, serving as the church’s first superintendent. Shiloh recently celebrated its 125th anniversary as a Tarrytown, N.Y., institution.

Harlem Renaissance poet and author Claude McKay wrote this about the black church and the post-Emancipation era: “The Negro people remained a special group. They were excluded from trains and trams, hotel and restaurants, schools and theaters and other public places. They were kicked out of Christian churches. They were effectively segregated. But the only thing more than any other that Negroes started out to build exclusively for themselves was the Negro church.”

shiloh baptistAs Shiloh’s first superintendent, “Papa Jack” spearheaded the hiring of Rev. C.L. Franklin, who served as the church’s pastor for close to three decades during its most formative years in the early 1900s. Like many blacks at the time, including members of my family, Rev. Franklin supported the Republican Party, referred to by most black folks as “the party of  Lincoln.”

papa jack with church conf

A pillar in the community, “Papa Jack” was actively involved with an interdenominational group of church leaders.

Addressing a meeting of Colored Republican Club of the Tarrytowns in the early 1900s, Rev. Franklin said this according to a local newspaper: “I have been a resident of the Tarrytowns for five years and I have made a study of this community. We’re all a part of it and we know what the Republican organization has done for us. Let every clear thinking individual stand at the polls next Tuesday and support the Republican ticket.”

As a child, I attended Shiloh Baptist Church but only recently found out about my great grandfather’s role in its establishment.

A vision of racial and social uplift

“Some people think it is almost a crime to be a Negro. As for me, I am proud to belong to a race that has made such progress in fifty years of freedom, yes, and proud to belong to that race that, in spite of all abuse, has never known a traitor.”
                                                                                     — Beatrice H. Jackson, 1917
This fragment of a newspaper column written in 1917 by my great aunt, Beatrice Jackson, inspired my interest in learning more about my family history.

 

One of the inspirations for my interest in researching my family’s history was a fragment of a newspaper column I discovered among the articles, photos and other documents that I unearthed in my grandparents basement in 2009. The fragment, it turns out, was from a letter to the editor of the Tarrytown (N.Y.) Daily News written in 1917 by my great aunt, Beatrice Jackson. The letter, which ended with the words you see above, was written in response to the charge of treason that was being leveled against some of the black soldiers fighting for the U.S. in World War I.

I’d later uncover several other letters to the editor penned by my Aunt Beatrice, all of them displaying a very progressive racial and social

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In the early 1900s, my great aunt Beatrice Jackson (pictured as a teenager) wrote several Letters to the Editor that were published in the Tarrytown (N.Y.) Daily News.

consciousness. That racial solidarity has emerged as a unifying theme as I’ve learned more about the lives of my ancestors. It also inspired my blog’s subtitle, “Lifting As We Climb.”

In future blogs, you’ll see that this theme of racial uplift was at the heart of the contributions of several of my ancestors, most notably Aunt Beatrice and my great grandmother, Addie Wilkins Jackson–or “Momma Addie” as she was affectionally called.

Grand Central Railroad hires a chauffeur and a wise “advisor”

“Papa Jack” on the staff of railroad president A.H. Smith (seated on left) in 1920. My great grandfather is the good-looking 55 year old on the right.

After migrating to New York state from his birthplace in southwestern Virgnia, my great grandfather, Clarence C. Jackson, settled in Tarrytown, a village served by the Hudson River Railroad. The railway line linked New York City and Albany and was one of the many railways that started and terminated at Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan. The Hudson River line gave “Papa Jack” easy access to New York City–and  job opportunities.

In 1892, at the age of 27, my great grandfather landed a job as a messenger with New York Central Railroad, whose offices were in Grand Central Station. He worked directly for the railroad’s president Chauncey Depew. In 1898, Depew stepped down as president of the railroad when he was elected U.S. Senator from New York. “Papa Jack” would work as a messenger for subsequent presidents of the railroad, eventually rising to the position of chauffer and personal assistant to A.H. Smith when he presided over New York Central Railroad (1914 -1924) during its heyday.

New York City’s Grand Central Station around 1915

I can imagine my great grandfather and his boss discussing their families, the war, race relations and an assortment of other topics during the ride from Smith’s estate in Westchester Co., N.Y,  to his office at Grand Central Station. And it’s not a stretch to believe that the opinions and perspective of the wise and God-loving “Papa Jack” may have influenced some of the important decisions made by Smith, one of the most powerful men in America in the early 1900s.

I know that “Papa Jack’s” daughter, Virginia Jackson Nelson, had no problem giving people “advice.” Trust me on that, she was my grandmother.

My great grandfather retired on July 31, 1935 after working for eight of the railway system’s presidents. An article published in the Tarrytown Daily News the day before “Papa Jack” retired read: “Mr. Jackson met many dignitaries from all parts of the world” during his 42 years as an employee of New York Central Railroad.

I don’t know if they realized it at the time, but the ”dignitaries” who met my great grandfather met a man who was a ”dignitary” in his own right.

From Virginia to New York: A Black Family’s Migration

Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson

My great grandfather, Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson, left his birthplace of Basic City, Virginia, for New York state  in 1885. He was 20 years old. “Papa Jack” left behind his mother, Lucy Ann Jackson, and his father, Squire Jackson, both of whom would eventually relocate to New York at the insistence of my great grandfather and their other children, all of whom appear to have left Basic City for New York state in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

My great grandfather migrated from Virginia to New York State well before the “First Great Migration” of blacks from the rural South to the urban North, which is dated from roughly 1910 to 1930. Or the second “Great Migration,” which began around 1940. His sojourn was probably helped by the fact that, shortly after the Civil War, Basic City became the junction of two railroad lines–the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (which would become the Norfolk and Western Railway), giving “Papa Jack” and his siblings easy access to a major system of transportation–and a convenient way to leave the South for a new and different life in the North.

While less than 20 percent of the nation’s black population lived in the north prior to 1910, a small–but not insignificant–wave of black migration from south to north took place between the end of the Civil War and 1900. Like the “great migrations” that would follow, this exodus was also apparently spurred, in large part, by economics.

“After its defeat in the Civil War, the South had reverted to dependence on cotton as its major economic resource. … As sharecroppers or tenant farmers, blacks often tended the same fields as they worked as slaves fifty years before. This dependence proved to be damaging when a series of floods and boll weevil infestations reduced crop yields to dangerously low levels. With fewer arable fields to harvest and increasing mechanization of field work, the South suddenly found it ‘had too many people and too few jobs’.” (Black Exodus­­­­–The Great Migration from the American South, Alferdteen Harrison)

In 1893, my great grandfather, now a resident of New York state, married Addie Wilkins,whose family had also migrated from Virginia. My next several posts will focus on “Papa Jack” and the family he and “Momma Addie” would  start in Tarrytown, N.Y., a village 20 miles north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley.