Englewood Makes History

Alexander L Jackson

Born March 1, 1891 in Englewood New Jersey, Alexander Jackson grew up on William and Humphrey Street in the heart of Englewood's historic African American community. By the time Jackson began school at Lincoln elementary, almost 400 African Americans lived in the city, about 6% of the population. Sixty percent of Englewood's black residents lived in the city's 4th ward near west Palisade Avenue on Humphrey, William, and Armory Street. The other third of the city's black residents lived in roughly equal numbers in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd wards primarily working as live in domestics in the homes of Englewood's wealthy industrialists and bankers. 

Jackson stood out as a scholar, athlete, and leader from a young age. In June 1905, Jackson graduated first in his class from Liberty School where he also gave the Valedictorian Speech. In the fall of 1905 Jackson entered Englewood High School on Engle Street and became an accomplished member of the debate team and athlete participating in football, baseball, and track and field. While he was in school, Jackson helped support his family by selling newspapers. Jackson finished high school at Phillips Andover Academy where he also excelled in his studies and athletic pursuits. He gave the Andover commencement speech in 1910 and won the Means Prize for best essay.

Jackson entered Harvard University in 1910. In his first year, in a track competition against Yale, he set a Freshman record for the 220 yard low hurdles. He spent the next three years on the varsity track team. In 1913, at an intercollegiate meet, Jackson came in second in the 120 yard high hurdles to the Olympian from Wesleyan, James Wendell, who equaled the world record in the race. He graduated 11th out of a class of 135 and studied German, English, and economics. In 1914, Jackson beat out six of his classmates to be elected to give the commencement speech. After his election as class orator, one New Jersey newspaper said the state has "reason to be proud of him, which in this product of its common school system may be giving the nation a second Booker T. Washington." Jackson accomplished this while holding an outside job to pay his way through college. 

The next year, the Wabash YMCA hired Jackson as its executive secretary. On September 9, Jackson held a momentous meeting at the Wabash YMCA with Carter G Woodson, William B Hartgrove, George Cleveland Hall, and James E Stamps. Jackson had become friends with Woodson at Harvard while Woodson was working on his Ph.D. in history. In 1912, Woodson became the second African American, after W.E.B. DuBois, to receive his Ph.D. from Harvard. Woodson and the other men were in Chicago for the National Half Century Exposition and Lincoln Jubilee held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of slavery. Several days before the end of the Jubilee, the five men met at the Wabash Y and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The next year the ASNLH created the Journal of Negro History and in 1926 established Negro History Week, which became Black History Month in the late 1960s.

The goal, however, of the ASNLH was never just a week or a month of Black History. Instead, Woodson, Jackson and the other ASNLH founders and members were establishing the institutional foundation of black history movement that already had deep roots. They were building on a tradition in the black community in the late 19th century to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These commemorations became a time to reflect on the legacy of racism and slavery and the meaning of freedom and emancipation and the contributions of African Americans to building American society. In 1897, as a member of the Washington D.C. Board of Education, Mary Church Terrell, established Frederick Douglass Day in the D.C. schools. Terrell viewed the day as a time to teach black youth about the various ways that black men and women have "distinguished themselves" throughout history. 

They successfully enlisted sororities and fraternities, churches, community organizations, schools, and philanthropists in an ongoing year around effort to generate and spread scholarship about black history. 

After the establishment of the ASNLH, Jackson lived an active civic and business life. He became a successful real estate investor, the general manager of the Chicago Defender, president of the Board of Trustees of Provident Hospital in the 1920s and 1930s, education secretary for the National Urban League and was active in the Boys Scouts and Boys Club Foundation.

Jackson remained engaged with Englewood and his old neighborhood in the 4th ward. In 1926, Jackson reached out to his friend and fellow Harvard graduate, W.E.B. DuBois, to attend a planned "Older Boys" conference sponsored by the Brooklyn Older Boys Conference in Englewood. Jackson was Chairman of the Brooklyn Boys Work Council. The Council was set up to address what social workers were calling the growing "boys problem" of delinquency. Although DuBois was traveling and could not attend, a number of out of town guests attended the two day conference at the First Baptist Church. 

In 1933, Jackson filed a pioneering lawsuit in St.Joseph County Michigan after a white resort owner named Arthur Thompson tried to keep Jackson and his family from swimming at a public beach at Lake Fisher. While Jackson, his wife and child were swimming Thompson placed a written sign on their car saying "notice, we cater to whites only." Jackson sued Thompson for $2,500 for damages for "humiliation. The Circuit court ruled in Jackson's favor although awarded him only $1. Although the ruling was mostly "symbolic," it showed that African Americans could win victories over racial discrimination in the courts.


David Colman