“Albert Jackson. That’s me. I am a postman. This is my story…let you decide if it’s a good one.”

This is 1891, Toronto the Good. Toronto the White. Toronto the Christian Irish, Scottish, English. This is happening right here in this neighbourhood: Harbord, Major, Palmerston, Brunswick, Euclid, Borden. Good solid White names. No “Albert Jackson Lane” then, I can assure you. These are the rivers I crossed every day. Downtown further, Queen and Broadview, country then — city now. There’s a sign on a bridge today says: “This River I Step In is Not the River I Stand In.” I like that. I think that must descend from Heraclites. That sign is me. This is my journey, this is the river I stand in. The porches I mount every day as I deliver the mail are my pulpits. My messages of hope, expectation, sadness, distress, love, and commerce are my Gospel. I am the messenger that connects the Stations of the Cross for everyone in my parish. The parish of the daily post. Come with me. Watch your steps.”

WHO WAS ALBERT JACKSON?Albert Jackson

Albert Jackson (1856-1918) was born in Milford, Delaware to John and Ann Maria Jackson, a couple who worked on a large plantation. The youngest of nine children, Albert was barely three years old when his two eldest brothers were sold to another master in 1858. Shortly after, John Jackson dies—presumably of a broken heart.

Left to fend for herself and her family alone, Ann Maria decides to escape the plantation and make the treacherous trip to freedom. A difficult journey at the best of times, Ann Maria, along with her remaining seven children, faces the prospect of capture, separation, starvation, and death. Despite the odds being firmly against her, Ann Maria collects her brood and heads north. Albert is still a toddler, and the oldest of seven fleeing children is about 16 years old. Miraculously managing to avoid slave catchers, Ann Maria reaches Pennsylvania with her family through the help of some agents of the Underground Railroad. The Jacksons continued their journey along the Underground Railroad, travelling the nearly 400-kilometre journey all the way to St. Catharines, Ontario, and freedom.

Once in Canada, the Jackson family stayed briefly at the home of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, fugitive slaves from Kentucky who had to Toronto in 1834. Thornton, who owned Toronto’s first taxi business, and his wife helped those arriving on the Underground Railroad settle in Toronto. The Jacksons moved to the neighbourhood around Osgoode Hall, then called St. John’s Ward. This area of the city housed many refugees from slavery and other immigrants coming to Canada to start a new life. To support her family, Ann Maria worked as a laundress, while Albert’s oldest brothers worked as hotel waiters. Growing up in Toronto afford Albert Jackson the privilege of public schooling; something neither of his parents or most of siblings ever received. Albert’s education and hard work opened many doors to him, but he was drawn to working for the Postal Service.

Upon completion of his schooling in May 1882, Albert was accepted for the position of postman. His assignment was met with protest by his white co-workers who refused to train or work with him, so Albert was demoted to hall porter in an attempt to defuse the tension. This move was met with an outcry from Toronto’s Black community that was led by Jackson’s brothers John Jr. and Robert, a barber to many prominent figures in Toronto. The debate raged for weeks until the Black community eventually escalated the issue to the prime minister’s office, where they urged John A. Macdonald to intervene on Jackson’s behalf. Canada’s first prime minister realized the significance of the issue to the Black population and stepped, allowing Albert Jackson to be returned to his original position. It was one he remained for the rest of his life, until his death in 1918.

The Postman > The Man > Underground Railroad

Formed in the early nineteenth century, and reaching its height between 1850 and 1860, the Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to free states and Canada. It is difficult to know how many slaves escaped thanks to the railroad, but one estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had used this network to make a bid for freedom.

Ann Maria Jackson and her seven children are the largest known family group to make this escape. This was almost unheard of: a woman, running alone without the assistance of a male partner or relative, travelling with seven children aged 16 months to 14 years. The dangers were huge. Imagine her fear: chased by bounty hunters while trying to keep small children quiet in the woods. Imagine the alternative to success: rape, death, and a life of slavery for her offspring.

When Ann Maria Jackson and her children made it to Philadelphia, they met William Still, a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. Often called the Father of the Underground Railroad, Still helped as many as 800 slaves escape to freedom. He interviewed each person and kept careful records, including a brief biography and the destination for each, along with any alias adopted. He kept his records carefully hidden, but knew the accounts would be critical in aiding the future reunion of family members who became separated under slavery. Still worked with other Underground Railroad agents operating in the South and in many counties in southern Pennsylvania. His network to freedom also included agents in New Jersey, New York, New England, and Canada. Conductor Harriet Tubman traveled through his office with fellow passengers on several occasions during the 1850s, and Still forged a connection with the family of John Brown.

In his book, The Underground Railroad, published after the Civil War, Still remarked on the story of Ann Maria Jackson and her family, noting how unusual it was to see a woman with so many young children taking such a risk to make a bid for freedom.

The Postman > The Man > Victorian Toronto

The Ward (formally St. John’s Ward) was a neighbourhood in central Toronto bounded by College Street, Queen Street, Yonge Street, and University Avenue and was centred on the intersection of Terauley (now Bay Street) and Albert Street. For several decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was a highly dense slum where successive waves of new immigrants would initially settle before establishing themselves. In the nineteenth century it was the home of refugees from the European Revolutions of 1848, the Irish Potato Famine, the Underground Railroad, and then refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was the centre of the city’s Jewish community from the late nineteenth century until the 1920s when the Jewish community moved west to Spadina Avenue and Kensington Market and was also, until the late 1950s, the home of the city’s original Chinatown, of many of the city’s original Black residents centered around the British Methodist Episcopal Church, at 94 Chestnut Street and of the city’s Italian community until it moved west along College Street to Little Italy. The city’s Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and numerous other non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants first established themselves in “The Ward.”

The Postman > The Man > Learn More

The Postman’s historian Karolyn Smardz Frost wrote I’ve Got a Hame in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. This book, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2007, tells the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who, after escaping slavery, arrived in Canada in 1833. Once settled in Toronto, they, in turn welcomed many other runaway slaves, including Ann Maria Jackson and her family, make a home in Toronto.

Published by Coach House Books, [The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto First Immigrant Neighbourhood INSERT HYPERLINK: http://www.chbooks.com/catalogue/ward] tells the story of the area bordered by College and Queen, University and Yonge streets that was the first home of the waves of newcomers who migrated to Toronto.