Editor’s Note: As Black History month draws to a close, we provide a feature, on Giles B. Jackson, the first African-American to argue before the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (now the Supreme Court of Virginia).
For Giles B. Jackson, a man born into slavery in 1853, the future did not seem to hold much promise. Like most African-Americans of that time, Jackson seemed fated for a life of servitude. But the Civil War soon brought an end to that notion. Overcoming the odds laid against him, Jackson ultimately became an attorney, entrepreneur, real estate developer, newspaper publisher and civil rights activist.
Jackson was born on a farm in Goochland County. When the Civil War broke out he served as a body servant to his owner, a Confederate cavalry colonel, Charles G. Dickerson. He also attended the horses and uniforms of Gen. Robert E. Lee. He was captured in Caroline County and went before General U.S. Grant, who released him back to Dickerson.
Upon his emancipation after the war, Jackson relocated to Richmond, where he worked for the prominent Stewart family at Brook Hill Plantation. There he met his wife, Sarah Ellen Wallace, and learned to read and write.
Jackson worked many jobs to support his large family, which eventually grew to 14 children. In need of funds, he took a job doing menial work with William H. Beveridge, a Richmond lawyer. In Beveridge’s employ, he began to “read the law,” then a custom in Virginia and under Beveridge’s tutelage began to practice. On Nov. 30, 1887, Jackson became the first African-American attorney to be allowed to practice before the Virginia Supreme Court. Spurred on by Beveridge, Jackson became a successful attorney serving the black community in Richmond.
He became a spokesperson of sorts for this community and was contacted by Booker T. Washington and began to work with him in his efforts to abolish Jim Crow laws in Virginia. Washington selected Jackson as his aide-de-camp in 1900 when Washington organized the Negro Business League in Boston. Jackson served as a vice president during the organization’s first three years.
In 1901 when the General Assembly resolved to commemorate the Tercentennial of Jamestown, Jackson promoted an idea of a separate Negro Exhibit to run concurrent with the Jamestown Exhibition of 1907. The Exhibition was a huge success, drawing the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who attended the exhibit and lauded Jackson’s efforts.
Inspired by the successful exhibit, Jackson and D. Webster Davis, a prominent black educator and poet, wrote a book called, “The Industrial History of the Negro Race of the United States,” detailing the 1907 Negro Exhibit efforts and devoting chapters to business, the arts, and inventors. The book was later used as a school text in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.
Jackson devoted much of his life to advancing the African-American community by founding business league chapters, helping to establish fraternal orders, writing articles of incorporation and publishing a newspaper, the “Negro Criterion,” to promote the Negro Exhibit and black business.
During World War I Jackson was appointed chief of the Negro Division of the U.S. Employment Service in Washington, D.C. When his commission ended, he returned to Richmond, where he spent the last years of his life dedicated to lobbying Congress to create a Negro Industrial Commission. He requested support from governors, religious and political organizations, senators and representatives urging them to endorse his bill that would improve interracial labor troubles and promote better working conditions for blacks. Although his bill was unsuccessful, his efforts were not in vain.
Well-respected in both the black and white community, Jackson, according to his biographers, personally knew or met every president from Grant to Coolidge. President McKinley made him an honorary colonel so he could command a regiment of black cavalry at the McKinley inauguration and Roosevelt, his successor, renewed the commission.
– By Christine Watson