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.

 

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.