Warming the Hands—and Hearts—of Black Soldiers

My great grandmother never missed an opportunity to support her race—often going the extra mile to do so.us-knitting-poster

When Americans were encouraged to knit items for the troops during World War I my great grandmother, Addie Jackson, and her daughters—my grandmother Virginia and my aunt Marie—knitted socks, scarves and gloves for the servicemen.

“During World War I Americans of all ages were asked by the United States government to knit wool socks, sweaters, and other garments to warm American soldiers at home and abroad,” an article on HistoryLink.org says.

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Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment from Harlem, NY during World War I. My family knitted socks, gloves and scarves for the regiment and other black soldiers.

“On Sundays in those days everyone would make a pair of socks and there’d be at least four pairs of socks by the end of the day and gloves and scarves by the end of the week,” my Aunt Marie said in a 1981 article published in the Tarrytown (N.Y.) Daily News.

However, when Momma Addie discovered the black soldiers were not being sent these clothing items, she started a Red Cross chapter in her Tarrytown, NY home, and began knitting and sending scarves, gloves and socks to the black troops.

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Young black girls in Hampton, Virginia knit scarves, socks and other items for the World War I troops.

“We started the Red Cross in Tarrytown because it (the Red Cross) was segregated in those days,” my grandmother told the Tarrytown newspaper. “They wouldn’t take blacks and there were blacks fighting in the 369th Regiment. So mother started the Red Cross in our home.”

The 369th Infantry Regiment out of Harlem, NY had trained for battle in nearby Peekskill, NY, and my family knew some of its members. These were the black soldiers my great grandmother and her daughters had in mind when they started the Red Cross chapter in 1914.

Discovering an Unknown Gravesite

Surprise and frustration. That’s the only way to describe my feelings when I found out a few years ago that my great-great grandmother, Lucy Ann Jackson, who was born into slavery in Nelson Co., VA, my great-grandfather Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson Sr., and my great-grandmother Addie “Momma Addie” Jackson were buried in Tarrytown’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—not far from the gravesites of my grandparents and other relatives.

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Honoring the gravesite of my great-great grandmother and great grandparents

If I had known that these other ancestors were buried elsewhere in the same cemetery, I certainly would have visited their gravesite to reflect and leave flowers, just as I often did at the gravesite of my grandparents.

My grandparents—Henry and Virginia Nelson—were buried in the Lone Valley section of the cemetery, but I wanted to locate the graves of my great-great grandmother and great-grandparents who were buried in the Macpelah section. My first visit to the Macpelah section in May 2010 ended in frustration as the cemetery’s superintendent, Andrew Cupak, and I were unable to find my ancestors’ burial site. I wanted to make sure their grave had a proper headstone—and I wanted to leave a token of my love and appreciation. These were, after all, ancestors who, in the early 1900s, had been leaders of Tarrytown’s “colored” community—and who had become a tremendous source of pride and inspiration for me in recent years.

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Former Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Superintendent Andrew Cupak

Before I left that the cemetery that May day, Superintendent Cupak vowed to find my ancestors’ gravesite. When I returned 4-5 months later he had indeed found their burial site—and there was a headstone that he had had cleaned to ensure that it was in top condition when I saw it. I appreciated the superintendent’s efforts—and I was thrilled to finally be able to see, care for and honor my ancestors’ final resting place.

While this search for my ancestors’ gravesites ended a chapter of my pursuit of my family’s history, it also intensified a new one. Now, I was even more determined to learn more about what I consider some fairly remarkable ancestors, including a great-great grandmother who lived to be 114, a great-grandfather who in the early 1900s served as the personal assistant to the president of New York Central Railway, and great grandmother who was a political activist, a community leader and a respected spokesperson for Tarrytown’s “colored” people.

 

Great-great grandmother Lucy Ann Jackson was a 114-year-old celebrity

My great-great grandmother, Lucy Ann Jackson, was born a slave in Nelson County, VA in the 1822. In the late 1800s she moved to New York where she lived to be 114 years old. This news clip from around 1935 celebrates my great-great grandmother as being possibly the “oldest voter” in America. She lived in Tarrytown, NY at the time.

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Aunt Beatrice Comes to the Defense of the “Harlem Hellfighters”

The 369th Infantry Regiment, known initially as the 15th National Guard New York, was the first black infantry allowed to fight in World War I. The regiment was commanded by Col. William Hayward, a member of the Union League Club of New York, which sponsored the 369th in the tradition of the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry, which the club had sponsored in the U.S. Civil War.

Known for their toughness, the Germans nicknamed them the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The most celebrated man in the 369th was Pvt. Henry Johnson, a former Albany, New York, rail station porter, who earned the nickname “Black Death” for his actions in combat in France. In May 1918 Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts fought off a 24-man German patrol, though both were severely wounded.

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My great aunt Beatrice Jackson defended members of the regiment against claims they were causing trouble at the “peek-a-boos.”

The 369th Regiment band became one of the most famous military bands throughout Europe. During the war the band (under the direction of James Reese Europe) became famous throughout Europe. It introduced the until-then unknown music called jazz to British, French and other European audiences.

Prior to shipping out to France in December 1917, the regiment trained at Camp Whitman near Peekskill, NY. While at the camp, members of the regiment would frequent a strip club (known back then as “peek-a-boos”) in nearby Tarrytown, NY. In a 1917 letter to the Tarrytown Daily News, my great aunt Beatrice Jackson defended members of the regiment against claims that they were causing trouble at the “peek-a-boos.”

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?