A resident in Harbord Village, who happens to live in one of Jackson’s old homes, wants to name a laneway for Albert Jackson.
AARON HARRIS FOR THE TORONTO STAR /
Faith Jackson, widow of Albert Jackson’s grandson, raised her family in Jackson’s Harbord Village home. Patrick Crean now lives there and has asked the city to name a lane for the postman.
By: Isabel Teotonio Living reporter, Published on Fri Feb 10 2012
When Albert Jackson showed up for his first day of work as a mailman, on May 17, 1882, the other letter carriers refused to show him the rounds. The reason: He was black. The incident was reported by the press, which wrote about “the obnoxious coloured man.” White letter carriers and office staff were indignant that a black man was appointed to the job, which placed him in a
higher rank than some white employees.
For several weeks, the story of Toronto’s first black postman was hotly debated in the city’s newspapers. On Jackson’s first day of work, white mail carriers told The Evening Telegram his appointment by the government was “a most impolitic move.”
Toronto’s black community was galvanized into action and supported Jackson, a former child slave from the United States who had escaped to Canada along the Underground Railroad. They were determined to see Jackson working his mail route and took their demands to John A. Macdonald, the prime minister. It was an election year, and they were heard. Wanting to please black voters, Macdonald intervened.
While the issue was contentious enough to earn the prime minister’s attention, the story of Toronto’s first black letter carrier is little known nowadays. Neither the Ontario Black History Society nor Canada Post have much information on Jackson. Toronto publisher Patrick Crean wants to make the public aware of Jackson’s legacy. Crean learned about Jackson through Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, which he published in 2007 as head of Thomas Allen Publishers. He later learned that, by some strange coincidence, he now lives in a home on Brunswick Ave. once owned by Jackson himself.
In fact, Jackson’s widow and children went on to own many homes in the area, near Bloor St. and Bathurst Ave. So when a local residents association asked residents to suggest names for the roughly 25 laneways that slice through the west-end Harbord Village neighbourhood, Crean proposed Albert Jackson Lane. Jackson’s descendants support the proposal, which is now before the city for review. Faith Jackson, who was married to one of Jackson’s grandsons, welcomes the tribute.
“His story is a part of the history of this city,” says Faith, 78, who raised her five children in the house along with her late husband, Bruce Jackson.
Frost, whose book won the 2007 Governor General’s Award for non-fiction, says there aren’t enough memorials to early black citizens. “I think it’s a really important thing that we acknowledge the
contributions made by African Canadians who came to Canada in search of freedom,” Frost said. “They helped create our city, our province and our nation as we know them today and they are so rarely acknowledged appropriately.”
When Ann Maria’s eldest two sons, James and Richard, were sold, she pleaded with her husband to run away and spare their other children a similar fate, writes Frost. But he grew depressed and insane over the loss of his boys and died grief-stricken.
In 1858, Ann Maria and her seven other children, the youngest of whom was Albert, escaped to Philadelphia, where African-American abolitionist William Still ran a station of the Underground Railroad, helping fugitive slaves on their journey north to freedom. He took careful notes about the runaways he encountered, including Ann Maria, and published their stories after the Civil War. Frost drew on Still’s writings while researching her book. Still helped Ann Maria and her children in their journey to St. Catharines. The family travelled to Toronto and stayed briefly at the home of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, fugitive slaves from Kentucky who had come to Toronto in 1834. Thornton, who owned Toronto’s first taxi business, and his wife helped freedom seekers get settled in Toronto.
While working on her book, a biography of the Blackburns, Frost discovered that Ann Maria and a son were buried in the Blackburn family grave at Toronto’s historic Necropolis Cemetery. While little is known about the Jacksons’ upbringing, Frost writes that Ann Maria and her family lived in rented rooms in the downtown neighbourhood called St. John’s Ward, the area now bordered by College
and Queen Sts., Yonge St. and University Ave. At the time, it’s where newcomers often settled, many in slumlike conditions. Ann Maria eked out a living by taking in washing, and sent her children to be educated, says Frost, a researcher at the Harriet Tubman Institute at York University.
By the 1880s, black people living in Toronto had some political equality — they could vote — but social and economic equality remained elusive, wrote researcher Colin McFarquhar in a 2007 article for Ontario History, the province’s premier history journal. At the time, most black men in Toronto worked in low-skill and service-oriented jobs, McFarquhar said. Some were labourers and waiters, while those in more skilled occupations tended to work as barbers. McFarquhar stumbled on the controversy of the letter carrier while researching for his PhD on race relations in Ontario.
“It does demonstrate how hard the black community fought to try and get full equality and full rights,” McFarquhar said. “If that didn’t happen there’s no way (Jackson) would’ve kept his job.”
On May 17, The Evening Telegram published a story with the headline “The objectionable African” that described Jackson as “the obnoxious coloured man” and said his appointment elicited “the intense disgust of the existing post office staff.”
Two days later, the same newspaper published an editorial stating, “Objection to the young man on account of his colour is indefensible . . . Taxes are not made a penny less to a man because he happens to have dark skin.”
For weeks, Jackson’s story played out in the city’s dailies, which ran stories, editorials and letters to the editor. Debate raged in letters to the Toronto World over whether black people were inferior; the newspaper carried an editorial stating that while “inferior races are a fact,” whites and blacks were politically equal. Jackson’s brother John, who helped mobilize the black community, responded with his own letter, which argued that black men were capable of the same accomplishments, when given the same opportunities. His brother Richard, a well-known barber whose clients included businessmen, politicians and publishers, may have also had some influence.
The issue was settled in the political arena. In a May 30 editorial the the Evening Telegram noted, “There is at least one time when the assurance is given that coloured people are just as good as people who are white. This is at election time.”
That night, a delegation met with prime minister Macdonald, calling on him to intervene. He did. Two days later, The Globe reported, Jackson was out delivering mail, “with no objection being raised.”
Jackson’s name vanished from the newspapers and he settled into his life as a letter carrier, and eventually the roles of husband and father. In March 1885, he married Henrietta Jones, with whom he had four sons. As a postman, Jackson likely earned a decent salary, which allowed him to buy property. In 1902, minimum wage for a letter carrier was $1.25 per day; by 1913 it was up to $3. The family’s first home was on Chestnut St., near the British Methodist Episcopal Church, where Jackson was a church leader.
In 1914, Jackson purchased a second home, on Brunswick Ave., which he rented. (This is currently the home of Toronto publisher Patrick Crean.)
Jackson died on Jan. 14, 1918. His obituary in The Toronto Daily Star described him as a “well-known figure in the downtown district.”
Shortly after his death, Henrietta, who lived until age 99, moved to Palmerston Ave., and purchased numerous homes in Harbord Village. So did her sons. At least nine homes in that neighbourhood have been owned by members of the Jackson family. At least three generations of Jacksons were raised there. Great-grandson Jay Jackson says the legacy of Albert Jackson has been passed down through the generations of his family. But the public knows little of his contributions. That’s why, he says, naming the laneway is such a great honour.
“I like that each neighbourhood has, not just black folks worthy of a designation, but people from each community,” says Jay, 69, a retired musician. “Toronto is unique like that.”