Today, July 11, on this anniversary of the Niagara Movement’s inaugural meeting at Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada across the border from Buffalo, New York, I’m reminded of how discovering a distant connection to that monumental event truly made an historical moment come alive for me.
My grandmother Mae’s November 1923 wedding was Harlem’s social event of the year. Lavish. Extravagant. Beautiful. Entirely over the top. The only problem: the bride didn’t want to marry the groom. The groom wasn’t particularly excited either.
What looked like a Cinderella fantasy and was reported as breathlessly as any People magazine cover story, turned out to be more nightmare than match made in heaven. A’Lelia Walker–daughter of millionaire entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker--had decided that she knew best for her adopted daughter and only legal heir. In her grand scheme–not unlike the marriages staged by mothers of some wealthy young American women who were paired with castle-rich and cash poor European aristocracy–she selected the scion of another prominent black family.
The man A’Lelia chose, I can only surmise as a way to consolidate family wealth, was Chicago physician Dr. Gordon Henry Jackson. At some point while doing research for On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner 2001), I realized that Gordon’s father, George H. Jackson, was the same George Jackson who had been treasurer of W. E. B. DuBois’s Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP.
As I began work on Joy Goddess: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, the biography I’m currently writing, I needed and wanted to learn more about Gordon’s family. I’d been poking around for years, but thanks to Anne Moore, a librarian at UMass Amherst, I was introduced to an incredible trove of information about the Niagara Movement in the DuBois Library at UMass.
To say I was thrilled when she sent a copy of the restaurant menu from that first Niagara Movement meeting on July 11, 1905 with George H. Jackson’s signature and address, is an understatement. Among the documents, now on line and accessible to all, are receipts signed by Jackson and meeting minutes that confirm his unanimous re-election as treasurer during the August 1906 Niagara Movement meeting at Harper’s Ferry. (Digital Niagara Movement and NAACP documents are also available at the Library of Congress.)
I eventually learned that Jackson was an attorney and Ohio state legislator. After years of living in Cincinnati and profiting from smart real estate investments, he moved his family to Chicago, where he continued to purchase valuable property and be involved in political affairs.
Mae and Gordon’s marriage really was doomed from the start. Not long after their child (and my uncle), Walker Gordon Jackson, was born in June 1926, Mae moved back to New York to work in the Walker School of Beauty Culture, dividng her time between the Walker’s Harlem townhouse and the mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson. In September 1928 she eloped with my grandfather, Marion Perry, an attorney who was studying finance that summer at Columbia University. My mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry, was born the following July.
Coincidentally, my grandfather was born on this very same day 121 years ago!
I can’t say theirs was a particularly happy marriage either, but their lives fascinate me and have provided a window through which to see other significant historic events and connect in a way I might not otherwise be able to do.