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


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

papa jack-inset2

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

sweet beatrice

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.

A 1913 will and property owned 120 years ago

One of the amazing documents I unearthed in the basement of my late grandparents Tarrytown, N.Y.,  home was the original last will and testament of my great-great grandmother Lucy Ann Jackson. The will was executed in September 1913–almost a century ago–and in it she leaves property in Basic City, Virginia (now part of Waynesboro, Va.) to my great grandfather, Clarence Jackson, and her other children. The two pieces of adjoining property were purchased by my great-great grandmother between 1880-1890, which is pretty remarkable considering she was a slave until around 1870.

During my August trip to southwestern Virginia, I visited the Augusta County courthouse in Staunton, Va., where my great-great grandmother’s will was filed. The same courthouse housed the original deeds for the property she once owned in Basic City.

Using the handwritten and very difficult to decipher information in the deeds, I was able to determine the exact location of the property my great-great grandmother owned in what is now Waynesboro, Va. So my wife, Linda, and I left the Augusta County courthouse and traveled the 10 or so miles to Waynesboro to visit the intersection where my great-great grandmother once owned property.

Two rather unremarkable ranch-style houses now occupy the corner lot owned by my great-great grandmother from around 1890 until, I suspect, the 1940s or 50s. I was tempted to knock on the doors of those houses and proudly–and loudly– let the folks living there know that my great-great grandmother, an ex-slave, once owned the property they were now living on. But I restrained myself. However, I did take the picture below.

Searching for my history on a slave plantation

In August, I drove from Washington, D.C. to Nelson County, Va. (a three hour trip) where my great-great grandmother Lucy Ann Jackson was a slave from birth until the end of the Civil War. (I was fortunate to have discovered a 1935 newspaper article where my great-great grandmother—who was 114 at the time—discussed her early life on the Rhodes Plantation in Nelson County and later on the Harris Plantation in the same county.)

My first stop in Nelson was the county seat of Lovingston where I visited the courthouse and the library in search of the birth and marriage records of my great-great grandmother and her husband, Squire Jackson. While I failed to find any birth or marriage records, the library did provide additional information about my great-great grandmother’s second owner, Colonel James Harris. Turns out the colonel’s family was one of the original settlers of Nelson County. Harris also served in the Virginia state legislature. In 1845, Col. Harris married Jacintha Rhodes and, I suspect, my great-great grandmother went with her from the Rhodes plantation to the Harris Plantation.

The former Rhodes Plantation in Nelson Co., Va.

I also began to connect the dots as to why the last name of the three children that my great-great grandmother had prior to emancipation was Harris, something I discovered in a 1870 Census available on My great-great grandmother worked in Col. Harris’s home helping to raise his and his wife’s children. And the colonel was most likely the father of  my great-great grandmother’s first three children—James Harris, Charles Harris and Lucy Ann Harris. (She had a total of 14 kids.)

I’ll have more on my visit to Nelson County and nearby Augusta County, Virginia in my next blog.

A challenging assignment

After 40 years as a journalist, I recently took on my most challenging assignment—researching and writing about my ancestors. This journey started in 2009 when, while cleaning out my late grandparents home in Tarrytown, N.Y., I happenend upon a box of photos, letters and other documents dating back to the late 1800s. That was followed by the discovery of an amazing family scrapbook stuffed with newspaper articles, church programs and other materials tracing the accomplishments—both individually and collectively—of “negroes and colored people” from the early 1900s through the 1930s.

This article about my great-great grandmother appeared in a Tarrytown, N.Y. newspaper when she was 114 years old. She is voting in the photo.

Thus far, the assignment has taken me to a plantation in Nelson Co., Virginia where my great-great grandmother, Lucy Ann Jackson, was a slave and to a nearby town, Waynesboro, where she purchased property in 1870. My great-great grandmother later moved to New York state where she lived until the ripe age of 114.

My early research has also introduced me to a great grandmother, Addie Wilkins Jackson, who worked closely with Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and other well-known female activists in the formation of a national colored women’s association. And a great grandfather, Clarence Jackson, who, in the early 1900s, was the personal assistant to one of the most powerful men in America, the president of New York Central Railroad.

I hope to use this blog to keep friends, family and others abreast of my progress—and to help keep me motivated as I take this journey into my personal history. I hope you will take the time to regularly read my blog—or at least occasionally stop by out of curiosity.


My blogging game plan

After more than 30 years of writing about topics ranging from education and sports to music and social justice, I decided it was time to take a shot at writing a blog.

My blogging game plan is to keep my posts short and sweet–a lot like this introductory one. I intend to cover those subjects which both interest me and with which I have a decent amount of familiarity. And I want and need your feedback.

In the upcoming weeks and months, I’ll be writing a good deal about the surprising—and inspiring—things that I’ve discovered as a result of my recent research into my family history. Maybe it will inspire you to research your own family history—if you haven’t already. The photos in my header are of my great grandfather, Clarence Jackson, and my great grandmother, Addie Wilkins Jackson, along with my grandmother, great aunts and uncles, mother and cousins. All of these images are from the early to mid-1900s.