Editor’s Note: As the nation commemorates civil rights acts for black Americans passed some 50 years ago, we turn to a Richmond neighborhood that was home to black professionals, activists and educators who, during the Jim Crow era, laid the groundwork for the black freedom movement. They boycotted and striked. They formed their own banks and developed real estate. They argued and won cases before the highest court in the land. The legacy of these Jackson Ward residents lives on in laws and opportunities that protect promises made — and once broken — in the U.S. Constitution.
Gov. John Garland Pollard moved down the line of 12 young men, shaking their hands.
James Edward Jackson Jr. glowed with excitement. Soon, the governor would pin a medal on his chest and congratulate him, as he did all the other new Eagle Scouts.
James E. Jackson Jr. became Virginia's first black Eagle Scout in 1930. (Photo courtesy Tamiment Library, New York University)
Only four years earlier, in 1926, James’ parents and others had lobbied the Boys Scouts of America for a black troop in Richmond.
James was the only black boy onstage in the John Marshall Hotel ballroom. As the spotlight glared down, he blocked from his mind that he had to enter the ballroom by way of the freight elevator, not the front door.
Finally the governor reached him. After a slight pause, Pollard grunted and tossed the medal at James. The same way one would pitch scraps to a dog.
The 16-year-old didn’t miss a beat. Without a word, he caught the medal, pinned it on his chest and raised his hand in salute. The audience applauded.
James’ calm courage gave the world a glimpse of the kind of adult he would be — a grandson of slaves who would become a Communist Party leader, a World War II veteran, a McCarthy-era fugitive, a civil rights icon.
James E. Jackson Jr. was born in Jackson Ward in 1914. He devoted his life to civil and human rights activism. (Illustration by Shawn Yu)
To understand James Edward Jackson Jr., you must understand his origins.
James, called Jack or Jim by family and friends, was born into a family that strove for advancement.
His mother, Clara Kersey Jackson, was a graduate of Howard University and the daughter of a freedman railroad engineer. His sister Alice would make history, not only as the first black person to apply to the University of Virginia, but as the catalyst for the Dovell Act, a state fund that would allow hundreds of black Virginians to pursue higher education.
His father, James Edward Jackson Sr., was one of Richmond’s first black pharmacists. No matter who you were or what color you came in, James Sr. required everyone to call him Mr. Jackson.
James Sr. quit school in the seventh grade after one of his teachers at Richmond’s all-black Moore Street School broke a slate over his head as punishment for “cutting up” in class. Bleeding and humiliated, James Sr. left the school and started clearing garbage and animal waste from his neighbors’ yards, making a small but steady income for himself. He saved his pennies and bought a pig, which he had butchered for cash. He then purchased a suit, new shoes and a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C. He was 13.
“James Sr. clearly had the ambition, the drive, and he passed that trait down to his children,” says his great-niece Dr. Carmen Foster, who chronicles Richmond’s black history, a passion also pursued by her late father, and Jackson Ward dentist, Francis M. Foster Sr. “From an early age, [James Sr.] was committed to succeeding, in spite of the tremendous obstacles he and other black people in Richmond — in the country — faced in that day.”
James Sr.’s time in the nation’s capital was well spent. He worked as a valet for novelist Grace Litchfield, went to night school and continued on to Howard University, where he graduated with a degree in pharmacy. He returned to Richmond’s Jackson Ward and established his pharmacy at 825 Leigh St. around 1903.
The Jacksons’ pharmacy at 825 Leigh St. (Photo courtesy the Foster Family Collection)
The year before, a new state constitution disenfranchised many black voters through taxes and arbitrary knowledge requirements, and legislators began enacting other segregationist policies. The number of eligible African-American voters dropped from about 147,000 in 1901 to about 10,000 by 1905.
Blacks had sat on streetcars where they liked until January 1904, when the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that allowed, but did not require, segregation on streetcars. By April, the Virginia Passenger and Power Co. decided to segregate its Richmond cars and empower conductors to allocate seating.
John Mitchell Jr. and Maggie L. Walker, both bankers and publishers, used their publications to urge African-Americans to boycott. Thousands of black Richmonders, including James Sr., chose to walk instead of ride through the early fall. Despite the zeal of the protesters and the transit company’s eventual bankruptcy, the state hardened its position in 1906, requiring segregation on public transportation.
The boycott reflects the “cauldron of Jackson Ward,” a bastion of forward-thinking, unapologetic black leaders, professionals and activists. “There was a significant amount of race pride, racial uplift,” Foster says. “[They were] stretching the boundaries and doing it with a sense of dignity and personal authority in the face of white supremacy and Jim Crow.” And James Sr. had his own vision for the advancement of his family and others, Foster says.
James Sr. founded the University Realty Co., whose board included Walker and A.D. Price, the owner of a successful Jackson Ward mortuary business. The company developed Frederick Douglass Court and Brookfield Gardens, where Richmond’s upwardly mobile blacks could live in their own well-tended neighborhoods on streets named after influential black leaders. So as the 1920s roared in Richmond, the Jacksons and their three children — Alice, Clara and James Jr. — moved from their flat above the Leigh Street pharmacy to Frederick Douglass Court.
Despite the Jackson family’s success, they weren’t shielded from the overt racism prevalent across the South and especially in Richmond. The Klan was always watching. The white supremacists — who paraded down Grace Street in the mid-1920s — once shot into the Jacksons’ business as the family slept upstairs.
The KKK marched along Grace Street circa 1925. (Photo courtesy The Valentine)
The Klan’s spent bullets, which James Jr. kept and stored in a glass pill vial that has since clouded with age, now sit on the desk of Timothy V. Johnson, director of New York University’s Tamiment Library. The library houses hundreds of the Jacksons’ papers and memorabilia, but Johnson doesn’t want this artifact housed with other items because of its fragility and its ability to tell an astonishing, disturbing story.
James Jr. saved the spent bullets from a KKK shooting at his father’s pharmacy. (Photo courtesy Timothy Johnson/Tamiment Library at New York University)
“One of the main reasons we have these types of archives is to teach students,” Johnson says. “One of the things we use that [vial] for is to illustrate what terrorism is, and its [domestic] history in America.”
Window on the World
In 1930, at 16, James Jr. enrolled at Virginia Union University. His major was chemistry, but he also studied Richmond’s harsh racial climate and economic conditions.
He only had to gaze out of the window of his father’s pharmacy to witness how poverty and unemployment affected the city of Richmond — its poor black residents, in particular. He saw weary tobacco factory workers, many of them black women, trudge by, their faces impassive and covered with the grime that comes from pulling stems from tobacco leaves for 12 hours every day, for insufficient wages.
Their existence was in stark contrast to his own family life, yet James sympathized with the working class and spoke up on their behalf as a college student at VUU. This was the foundation of his belief in equality for all, and his path to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which he joined in 1931.
Before the Red Scare of the late 1940s and ’50s — a hysteria built on the suspicion that the neighbor next door could actually be a Soviet spy — tens of thousands of Americans became Communists, if only for a while. Those disillusioned by the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression turned to communism as an alternative to capitalism and unfair labor practices. The party also created strong relationships with blacks, especially those in the South, by aiding victims of racial injustice.
In 1936, while a graduate student at Howard University, James attended the first convention of the National Negro Conference, a group with party ties, composed of mostly young activists and college students fighting for racial justice.
At that Chicago conference, James and other young activists conceived the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which would focus on eradicating injustices that faced young Southern blacks. They decided to gather in Richmond for the first time the following winter.
On Valentine’s Day weekend in 1937, 2,000 attended the closing session of Southern Negro Youth Congress at Fifth Baptist Church, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Delegates came from churches, colleges, civic organizations, interracial groups and fraternal organizations.
The Rev. Earl M. Brown has been pastor at Fifth Baptist Church since 1978 and is a successor of the Rev. Dr. Robert S. Anderson, who was pastor at the church in 1937 when the SNYC convened there. The church’s decision to host the meeting reflected the progressiveness of its members, Brown says. “At that particular time, and in those situations — look at the date and the things that were going on, discrimination, biases, violence and also, the Depression — it shows that Fifth Baptist had an open-mindedness and a respect for black issues. Which we still have.”
Only two months after the youth congress met in 1937, a black female worker at Carrington & Michaux tobacco plant in Richmond yelled, “Strike,” and 300 workers shut down their machines and sat down.
James, then 23, and SNYC workers stepped in to assist the workers, which resulted in a 5-cent-per-hour wage increase, eight-hour days instead of 12, and improved working conditions.
Workers at Vaughn tobacco plant followed with a walkout strike, singing as they ringed their employer’s building. The strikes reflected the power of the workers’ collective voice and SNYC’s growing influence.
“[The Southern Negro Youth Congress] was a model of what black youth should and ought to do,” Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a 2001 email to CPUSA. Bond also was a founding member of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led sit-ins and freedom rides all over the South in the 1960s.
“[They] preceded us, dared as we dared, dreamed as we dreamed.”
A Partner Found
As James continued his work with the youth congress, new opportunities presented themselves. He took a position at Fisk University and worked on Gunnar Myrdal’s groundbreaking 1944 book “An American Dilemma: The Negro and Modern Democracy,” which detailed how white America disregarded its ideals when it came to the inequities facing its black citizens.
Fisk is also where James would meet his future wife, fellow freedom fighter and central source of support.
Esther Cooper Jackson was born in August 1917 in Arlington and, like James, had grown up in a privileged home. From girlhood to womanhood, she served in the NAACP, as well as other civil rights groups. Her 1940 Fisk graduate thesis, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism” was significant; few, if any, scholars had bothered to study black women who cleaned other peoples’ homes or cooked for white families but were barely able to serve a decent meal to their own. Her work is still referenced today.
The Jacksons’ civil and human rights work was a foundation of their union. They married in 1941, and both worked for the Communist Party and the SNYC in Birmingham, Alabama.
James and Esther Cooper Jackson, in the early years of their marriage. (Photo courtesy Foster Family Collection)
In 1943, James joined the Army and served in World War II as an engineer battalion in an all-black unit in Burma (now Myanmar) for some 18 months. He and Esther, who remained in Birmingham and worked as SNYC’s executive secretary, wrote to each other daily while he was away.
“I received the beautiful Valentine card,” writes James in an undated wartime letter to Esther. “ … you were all my dreams on Valentine Day (and every day is a Valentine day when married to such a sweetheart!). … Keep sweet my sweets and tie the shoes of our little sugar [daughter Harriet]. … Your ‘Ole’ Man,’ Jack.”
Letter from James Jr. to his wife, Esther, during World War II. (Photo courtesy Tamiment Library at New York University)
After the war’s end, the Jacksons moved in 1947 to Detroit, where James and Esther began organizing autoworkers on behalf of the CPUSA. They shared a home with future Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
Rebuilding a Life
By 1951, James was the Southern director of the Communist Party and living in New York. That same year, during the zenith of the McCarthy era, James and 20 others were indicted under the Smith Act, a law which criminalized anyone suspected of trying to overthrow the government — especially Communists.
James, who was indicted on conspiracy charges and teaching classes about violent revolution, became a fugitive for five years, going into hiding to avoid arrest. Esther remained in Brooklyn to raise their two young daughters, Harriet, then 8, and Kathryn, 3.
The FBI wanted poster for James Jackson Jr. (Photo courtesy Eric T. Rebett)
“There was a warrant out for his arrest. I still don’t know everywhere he was,” Esther said in a February 2015 interview with writer Andrew Mitchell Davenport for the online magazine Full Stop. “For those five years, he stayed with different people across the country. Sometimes a year would go by before I heard from him. When I visited his parents, I had to make up stories that I had just heard from him, when I hadn’t. In Richmond, his parents had a special FBI agent who would visit every week.”
In 1956, James came out of hiding and was convicted. But before he could serve his sentence, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction and others, ruling that Marxist teachings were not synonymous with inciting the overthrow of the government.
He and Esther had to rebuild their relationship. “They were committed to making their marriage work,” says Sara Haviland, who got to know the couple first as an undergraduate researcher and then as their biographer. “Esther said they took a driving tour with their family through the South … that helped them reconnect to each other, and together, they were inspired by witnessing the civil rights movement and its activists,” including James’ peer Spottswood Robinson III. Robinson and Oliver Hill, both exceptionally bright lawyers from Richmond, who alongside Thurgood Marshall, brought Brown v. Board of Education to victory in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” education was, in fact, unequal and unlawful.
Editors and Authors
From the Jacksons’ home base in New York, Esther co-founded Freedomways, the acclaimed black quarterly journal, in 1961, and served as its editor until it shut down in 1986.
“That periodical helped to launch the careers of Audra Lord, Nikki Giovanni, and many black writers, intellectuals and artists from all around the world,” Haviland says. “It was central in giving people in the fields of black study and black arts a place to publish their work.”
In 1963, James’ book “The Philosophy of Communism” was published. No doubt drawing parallels from his research at Fisk, he again drove home the point that Americans had turned their back on the U.S. Constitution. “In respect to peoples yet unfree, in this 100th year since the Emancipation Proclamation, the 20 million Negro citizens of our country still are compelled to wage unending struggle for their constitutionally-proclaimed, yet generally withheld, equal rights,” he wrote. He also took the helm of the CPUSA’s newspaper, The Worker.
Though Esther and James’ life was firmly rooted in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, James stayed in touch with his family in Richmond.
James and Esther with their daughters Kathryn (left) and Harriet (right), circa 1960s. (Photo courtesy Foster Family Collection)
“When James would come home to Richmond in the ’60s, he would check in with my dad [Francis M. Foster Sr.] and my Uncle Kermit. They were very close,” says Foster, then a preteen living in her family’s Byrd Park home.
She remembers the day that her father sat her down and told her that The Worker’s New York City office on West 26th Street had been bombed.
That September 1966 bomb destroyed a basement room, damaged the offices of the party’s newspaper and ripped out the fronts of other buildings along the street, the New York Times reported.
“It was just scary. I was a kid who didn’t know much about communism. I just knew that my older cousin could have been killed, and it really shook me up.”
James later became the party’s national education director and international affairs secretary. In the decades to come, he and Esther traveled the world, speaking for marginalized and sharing stories with researchers, students and historians interested in the critical role African-Americans played in the rise of the CPUSA.
In 1991, James retired from the CPUSA after nearly 60 years. He received countless honors for his work, and inspired younger activists and visionaries, such as Angela Davis of Black Panther Party fame, whose mother, Sallye Davis, was a co-laborer with the Jacksons in the SNYC.
Raised in the “cauldron of Jackson Ward,” James took what he learned there and applied it to his life’s work — his father’s unwavering expectation of respect; the courage of tobacco workers who took a stand for themselves when no one else would; and the fearlessness of Jackson Ward’s business leaders who made their own world inside a racist Richmond in the early 20th century.
Foster last saw James, who passed away in 2007, at a family reunion dubbed “A Celebration of the Elders” at Richmond Public Library in 2000.
James was in his mid-80s, yet spry and full of wisdom, and happy to be home. “He was a bit thinner, maybe a little bit aged,” Foster says. “But he was so excited to see folks from the old neighborhood, and his family he hadn’t seen in years.
“My dad made a point of acknowledging James as a civil rights icon, a world-class leader, born right here in Richmond. His work was extremely valuable; still, it has meaning. He lived his purpose.”
As of press time, Esther Cooper Jackson, now 98, resides in New York. Despite repeated attempts, she, and her daughters Harriet and Kathryn, could not be reached for comment.