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.