Up in Toronto, Canada, there is a street in a residential neighborhood called Albert Jackson Lane. Downtown, on Lombard Street, there is a historical marker describing why Albert Jackson’s life should be celebrated by Torontonians. The honors that Mr. Jackson has received up north go beyond those city limits–the Canadian postal service has issued a stamp in his honor.
Why does this matter on a website devoted to the Delmarva Peninsula? Because Albert Jackson was born in Milford, Del. And because his widowed mother, Ann Maria Jackson, led her family on an unlikely, inspiring journey out of slavery in order to give her children a chance to make their way into Canadian history books.
IN THE BEGINNING: A BROKEN-HEARTED FATHER
Albert Jackson was either the youngest of Ann Maria’s nine children, or close to it. He was born in or around 1856. Albert’s father was a free black man whose first name seems to be lost in the mists of history.
The father’s free status meant nothing when it came to the legal standing of Ann Maria and her children, as ownership rights in slavery times passed through mothers, not fathers. Ann and her children were the “property” of a wealthy widower named Joseph Brown, who lived mostly in Milford but also had property in Mississippi. Brown was tall, slim, and bald. He had light hair and a long, sharp nose. Ann once said that he enjoyed drinking and had a fondness for curse words.
Brown had a good thing going for himself with the Jacksons. He allowed Ann and her children to live away from his property and with her husband, on the condition that they support themselves. Ann pitched in on this front by hiring herself out as a laundress and taking on other odd jobs.
Brown incurred no expenses when it came to raising those kids. But once the two oldest boys hit an age where they were able to put in a good day’s slave labor, he commandeered them away from Ann Maria and her husband, assigning them to another Delaware slave owner for an annual fee. Ann Maria would say later:
“It almost broke my heart. He came and took my children away as soon as they were big enough to hand me a drink of water.”
She tried to convince her husband that they should all make a run for the North, where they could live together in freedom, but Mr. Jackson never got on board with that plan. But neither could he get over the heartbreak of losing two children like that. He soon had a mental breakdown.
The removal of his children “preyed so severely on the poor father’s mind that it drove him into a state of hopeless insanity. He died in the poor-house, a raving maniac.”
That was in 1858, when little Albert was perhaps two years old.
‘THE FIRE OF FREEDOM BURNED WITH NO ORDINARY FERVOR’
That one-two punch of losing two children to slavery and a husband to insanity and death left Ann Maria thinking about freedom, but she still had seven children at home who needed food and clothing. The breaking point came later that same year, 1858, when Ann Maria heard through grapevine that her owner was planning to take four of her children and relocate them to his property in Mississippi.
“I just happened to hear of this news. My master was wanting to keep me in the dark about taking them.”
At that point, she felt she had no choice but to make a run for it with her remaining seven children. It’s not clear whether she established secret connections in advance with the Underground Railroad, or if she happened upon that network while fleeing without any guidance.
At one point in the family’s travels through Delaware, Ann Maria was sure that the family had been betrayed, but, as one Underground Railroad activist put it later, “She was lucky enough to fall into the right hands.” Soon, the Jacksons were moving under the watchful eye of a legendary “conductor” based in Wilmington, Thomas Garrett. Here is a report that he sent during the heat of the escape:
“We had some trouble in getting [the Jacksons] safe along, as they could not travel far on foot, and could not safely cross any of the bridges on the canal, either on foot or in carriage. A man left here two days since, with carriage, to meet them this side of the canal, but owing to spies they did not reach him till 10 o’clock last night; this morning he returned, having seen them about one or two o’clock this morning in a second carriage, on the border of Chester County, [Penn.] where I think they are all safe. … May He, who feeds the ravens, care for them.”
The Jacksons eventually made their way to the Philadelphia office of William Still. Many of the quotes here are from the journal Still famously kept of his work with the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. His job was to welcome runaways who had made it into the free state of Pennsylvania and help them get resettled somewhere farther to the north.
Still described Ann Maria Jackson as a “good looking” woman of about 40. She was of “medium” height. Her skin was “chestnut” colored. “Her bearing was humble,” but her intellect was clearly “above average.” Still asked her about her day-to-day life.
“Year in and year out she had suffered to provide food and raiment for her little ones. Many times in going out to do a days’ work she would be compelled to leave her children, not knowing whether during her absence they would fall victims to fire, or be carried off by the master.”
Still cited Ann Maria’s faith in God when discussing her remarkable strength and courage. The most memorable line in his account of his time with the family is this:
“The fire of freedom obviously burned with no ordinary fervor in the breast of this slave mother.”
FREEDOM & HARD WORK IN CANADA
On Nov. 20, 1958 William Still received this letter from a colleague in Canada:
“Dear Brother Still, I am happy to inform you that Mrs. Jackson and her interesting family of children arrived safe in very good health and spirits at my house in St. Catharines, [Ontario]. On Saturday evening last with sincere pleasure I provided them with comfortable quarters till this morning, when they left for Toronto.”
In Toronto, the Jacksons stayed first in the home of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who had escaped slavery themselves, fleeing Kentucky nearly a quarter-century before. The Blackburns had become quite prominent members of Toronto’s black community. While the two families lived together only briefly, all indications are that the Blackburns and the Jacksons enjoyed a long, close friendship in the years that followed.
Here is a quick, happy aside before returning to the story of little Albert Jackson. Do you remember those two older children who had been taken away from Ann and her husband back in Milford and assigned to another Delaware location, the event that sent her husband off of the deep end? Both those young men managed to escape slavery as well, and, incredibly, both found their family and settled in Toronto.
ALBERT JACKSON: PIONEER IN THE POSTAL SERVICE
In Toronto, Ann Maria made her living by washing clothes for white folks. By all accounts, she placed a high priority on paying for schooling for her children, instilling in them a deep regard for the importance of learning. She was still doing laundry at the age of 69. She died at 70, on Jan. 28, 1880, of “dyspepsia.”
As far as I have been able to determine, we only know in detail what happened to two of her children. One, Dirk Jackson, became a very well-known barber who managed a pair of shops and catered to a good number of Toronto’s political and cultural elite. Ads for “Dick and Rube’s” barbershop appeared regularly in Toronto’s newspapers in the 1870s.
Dirk died tragically young, at age 38, in 1885. His funeral was an indication of just how high he had climbed in Toronto society. The below is from a 2008 book titled I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, which focuses on the life journeys of the Jacksons’ friends, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn:
“Half of Toronto’s businessmen and a good proportion of the municipal politicians turned out for the funeral of this well-liked young man. The services took place at the St. John’s Ward British Methodist Episcopal Church on Chestnut Street on June 2, 1885. Long obituaries appeared in the Toronto World and in the Globe.
“One, on June 3, 1885, in the World, said that ‘a thousand people were at the funeral, including aldermen and military officers, former mayors of the city, and a host of the town’s notables [who had] all frequented his shop, … while Dirk deftly scraped their faces he entertained them with the latest gossip of the day—political, personal and social.’
“The newspaper accounts of Jackson’s death said that Jackson “was well liked by both the white and colored population … Not a few will miss the deceased from their acquaintanceship.” The procession of more than fifty carriages and hundreds of pedestrians wound its way through the city streets from the corner of Queen Street east of Bay to the Necropolis, which was about half a mile to the east. Both the publisher of the Toronto World and John Ross Robertson, of the Toronto Telegram, were in attendance. This was a remarkable tribute to a man whose value to the community clearly transcended any divisions of race or class that existed in the highly stratified late-nineteenth-century city.”
As for Albert, he went to work for the postal service, where he started in menial posts but slowly but surely climbed the ranks. On May 17, 1882 he earned a promotion that made him the first black man in Canada ever appointed to the highly public position of mail carrier.
On his first day of work, his new white colleagues refused to show him the ropes. That same day, the Evening Telegram newspaper ran a piece headlined, “The objectionable African,” with made reference to Albert as an “obnoxious colored man” and discussed the “intense disgust of the current post office staff” over the news of his promotion.
In response to the outcry, the post office reassigned Jackson to a lower position, but this turn of events outraged the black community of Toronto. The campaign for Albert Jackson was led by his popular and well-connected barber brother, Dirk. Presumably, the prominent Blackburn family chimed in on his behalf as well.
Two days later, the Evening Telegram backed down, printing an editorial saying that “objection to the young man on account of his color is indefensible.” It added, “Taxes are not made a penny less to a man because he happens to have dark skin.”
Eventually, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald intervened with the post office and put Albert back on the streets as a mail carrier. He set out on his route for the first time in early June, and that’s what he kept doing in the years and decades that followed.
Albert Jackson was married and had four children. He saved up enough money to buy a home for his family in 1914. He died on Jan. 14, 1918. Descendants of his are living in the Toronto area today.
No one paid much attention to Albert Jackson’s story until recently. That street in the Harbord Village neighborhood was re-named in his honor in 2013. That historical marker went up in downtown Toronto in 2017. That commemorative stamp was issued in 2019.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on July 30, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
- In my research here, I came across a blog post by an aficionado of Toronto street art that includes a number of photos of the murals and graffiti that adorn the little alleyway now known as Albert Jackson Lane. Here it is if you want to take a look.
- Thank you very much for spending a little time with this. Feedback is always welcome!