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.

 

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.”

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.