Tidbit on William Jackson

I’m still finding out bits about the life of Rev. William Jackson, the African American minister, abolitionist, and military chaplain who declared himself a Unitarian in 1860, and was ignored by the American Unitarian Association.

I had Jackson’s birth date — 16 August 1818 — but not his date of death. Everett Hoagland, poet, retired professor, and UU, writes to me that Jackson died 19 May 1909, according to the reference librarian at the New Bedford Public Library.

Jackson is well worth a full book-length biography. He, with some others, helped to forcibly free an escaping slave imprisoned under the new Fugitive Slave Law in Philadelphia. He may have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was converted to Unitarianism by Frances Harper, but was rebuffed by the A.U.A., and so remained a liberal Baptist. He was the first person of color to receive a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, and served briefly as chaplain to the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, before being transferred to the 55th when it was formed. And in the late nineteenth century, he was one of those middle class African Americans who began summering on Martha’s Vineyard. His life would make a great Ph.D. dissertation, or a great book.

3 thoughts on “Tidbit on William Jackson”

  1. I’d love to hear more about why Jackson was “rebuffed.” Does this speak to the vacuum I have encountered regarding Unitarianism and the emancipation movement?

  2. Jeremiah @ 1 — Well, of course you should go buy the book, Darkening the Doorways, edited by Mark Morrison-Reed, now available through the UUA Bookstore, and read my chapter on Jackson there.

    But here’s a possible answer:

    While I cannot document this, I think it was largely a failure of imagination on the part of the A.U.A.: they could not conceive of the possibility of having a black Unitarian church. Part of this was doubtless the mid-nineteenth century white Unitarian attitude of racial superiority. Part of this was doubtless due to class differences, for though Jackson was definitely middle class, the people attending the Autumnal Convention appear from contemporary newspaper accounts to have been upper class and upper middle class. It’s probably easiest to attribute the A.U.A.’s ignoring Jackson to racism; yet this wouldn’t explain why the Autumnal Convention didn’t see this as missionary work, and pursue it in that way. So I’d have to say racism and classism coupled with a failure of imagination.

    It’s interesting to consider Jackson’s story side-by-side with the Iowa Sisterhood, those women who were Unitarian ministers in Iowa and other midwestern states in the 1870s-1890s. The Boston-based AUA was dismissive of them, while the Western Unitarian Conference was far more supportive. It is interesting to speculate whether Jackson would have gotten a better response from the Western Unitarian Conference.

  3. I’m William Jackson’s great great granddaughter, and am pleased to find all of the comments here, as I confess this is one part of his story I didn’t know. I can’t wait to read Darkening the Doorways! Thanks.

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