David W. Jackson is white. Purely Caucasian.
Or is he?
Thanks to painstaking genealogical research, the Jackson County man has made a surprising discovery. While four generations of Jacksons have lived as white, his paternal great-great-grandfather was black.
And a slave.
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With direct roots to Africa.
Now the historian and historic preservationist has self-published his book about the finding. “Born a Slave: Rediscovering Arthur Jackson’s African American Heritage” blends facts about his great-great-grandfather’s life with historic pictures and the author’s search to unearth the truth.
Arthur and his wife and children “hid, denied and lied about their racial truth,” Jackson writes in the preface. “They successfully allowed this fact about our family’s race and ethnicity to die.”
Now he’s doing his best to revive it.
I feel we should humbly claim this heritage with honor.
David W. Jackson
“No living descendants of Arthur and Ida Jackson had a clue about this family secret,” he writes. “But it is a real-life American family story based in fact. And I feel we should humbly claim this heritage with honor.”
The book, he says, holds valuable lessons. The fact that a person who, by all observable standards, looks white, can descend from a slave should be a wake-up call for anyone who judges people by the color of their skin.
“I hope this book might give someone pause who might be prejudiced to think a little deeper,” says Jackson, who lives in Greenwood, south of Lee’s Summit. “And it could be a bridge (to show) that we’re all connected in one way or another.”
Discovering he is descended from a slave was fascinating for the 47-year-old author, who retired last year from the Jackson County Historical Society and now works in the Lee’s Summit School District. The knowledge answered questions he’d had since he began researching his ancestry — at age 11.
He became interested in family history after watching his mother answer questions on the 1980 census.
“At 11 I had all four great-grandparents still alive, all my grandparents, and — of course — my parents,” he says.
While other kids played outside, young David stayed inside and listened to his relatives tell stories. He recorded conversations and took notes. Soon he began researching his ancestry.
Born in Kansas City, Jackson moved to Florida with his family when he was 8. He came back every summer to stay with grandparents. His grandmother drove him to cemeteries, funeral homes, local libraries and archives. He spent long days reading, digging and learning.
“Oh my gosh,” he says. “I was like a sponge.”
He compiled clippings, photos, interviews and other research into notebooks, which he stored on shelves in his bedroom. Four years later he had filled 22 of them.
Before long he was teaching his grandparents more about their ancestors than they could teach him.
Still, there were gaps. One of the biggest was with Arthur Jackson, who lived from 1856-1931. Arthur spent time as a hog farmer and lived briefly in Kansas before moving to Westport in 1913. He worked as a landscape gardener at the homes of wealthy people along Ward Parkway and elsewhere. He even might have worked for William Rockhill Nelson, publisher of The Kansas City Star whose estate became the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“Arthur and Ida lived catty-corner to it,” Jackson says. “You know those tall apartment buildings on the southwest corner of Oak and 47th? Before those were apartments there was a row of houses, and they lived in one of those. I surmised in the book that Arthur, being a landscape gardener for wealthy people, may well have been a gardener for William Rockhill Nelson.”
That’s where the information stopped. Arthur’s ancestry was a mystery.
His grandfather Roy Jackson, who died last month, had lived with his Grandpa Arthur for several years as a boy.
“Grandpa was told by his grandmother that Arthur was a half brother to Dr. Jabez North Jackson, a really well-known (white) surgeon in Kansas City,” he says. “I found all sorts of information about Dr. Jackson’s ancestry but couldn’t find any connection to Arthur.”
In record after record David found Arthur listed as black. He asked his grandfather about it.
“How come your grandpa is listed in the census as black, and your grandma is white?” the boy asked.
“Oh, Grandpa wasn’t black,” Roy told him. “If anything he was an Indian.” Roy then told his grandson about being introduced, when he was 6, to Arthur Jackson’s half brother, Dennis.
“He said that old guy looked like the Indian on a buffalo nickel,” David says. “So I went to the National Archives (in Kansas City) and told them that story. They said it is true that Native Americans were listed in the census as black. So I just sort of gave up on Arthur. You have the Native American name and the Christian name. It’s complex and almost impossible to connect.”
Arthur’s trail grew cold for 30 years.
Then, in 2010, David Jackson got an email from a cousin he had never met who was researching the sister of Arthur’s wife, Ida Anderson Jackson. He told her about his failed search for information about Arthur’s ancestry.
“She said, ‘You need to look at the census report in 1880 in Holt County, Mo., because that’s where the Andersons lived.’ She said, ‘There’s an Arthur Jackson in that area who might fit who you are looking for.’ ”
David Jackson called up the census and found Arthur Jackson. He was listed as black. The age was right on.
“He was living with a white family named Jackson,” he says. “I thought that was unusual.”
He went back to his notes. Eventually he put the pieces together.
“My great-great-grandmother said we were related to Dr. Jackson. What she did not say is that we were related to Dr. Jackson’s slave family.”
That was it. The key. Arthur was born a slave and grew up in Franklin County, near St. Louis, where he was one the slaves of Dr. Jabez Jackson’s grandparents who moved to Missouri from Virginia. After being emancipated in 1865, 8-year-old Arthur continued to live with the white Jacksons for several more decades and took their last name.
“Most slaveholders in Missouri were not big plantation owners,” David Jackson says. “They didn’t own hundreds of slaves. They owned a handful. And these slaves worked, by and large, side by side with the farmer in the fields. It wasn’t the big overseer cracking the whip. That doesn’t mean there weren’t plantations in Missouri, or there wasn’t cracking of the whip.”
Jackson believes Arthur may have grown up with the white Jabez Jackson as a half brother.
“It’s not unusual,” he says. “But it does speak to the relationship they had. They were obviously friendly at a minimum.” In fact, Arthur named one of his sons Jabez Jackson.
He still wants to know more, though.
“I want to know who his parents were,” he says.
Searching for more information, David Jackson took a DNA test. The results: His paternal line came directly from Africa, to what is now Cameroon and Benin.
“You look at my face as white,” he says. “But if you look at this DNA report … you would think it was an African-American’s report. When I got this, and there was a big arrow pointing to Africa. It was spine-tingling.”
Jackson “did a hell of a piece of genealogical research,” says Preston Washington, president of the Midwest Afro-American Genealogical Interest Coalition in Kansas City. David Jackson is the group’s recording secretary.
Calling Jackson’s evidence detailed and irrefutable, Washington hopes the book gives people a greater appreciation of their personal diversity.
“David is not alone,” he says. “We have people in our group who have discovered white ancestors.”
The work is “a very compelling American story,” says Diane Mutti Burke, associate professor of history at University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of “On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households.”
“I’ve certainly read of other cases that are similar. But it is unusual to find such a well-documented story of a formerly enslaved person who disappeared into white society.”
David Jackson says the finding has changed him.
“When I see black people now I kind of look at them,” he says. “And I have this mental telepathy thing, like ‘I’m with you.’ I didn’t have that before.”
As for his family?
“They haven’t said anything,” Jackson says. “Maybe they’re secretly (upset) about it. But I don’t think so. I think it’s so far removed that it’s just another ancestor.”
To Jackson, Arthur will always be special.
Arthur is buried at Floral Hills in Kansas City, a whites-only cemetery at the time of his death. After being listed as black on every census, Arthur is listed as white on his death certificate. David suspects that Dr. Jabez Jackson might have pulled some strings to get Arthur into the cemetery.
David recently visited his great-great-grandfather’s grave.
On a see-your-breath-cold morning he took a stick and scraped at dried dirt that had accumulated on the bronze marker.
“This fella is pretty extraordinary,” he says.
He paused as a gust of winter wind blew across his face.
“I think about Arthur and Ida,” he says, staring into the distance. “They were never allowed to marry.”
As a gay man, Jackson knows how they must have felt.
“I was not allowed to marry the partner of my heart’s desire for (most of) my life,” he says. “Thankfully just last year the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.”
Jackson looked again at the marker with leaves engraved on the side. He looked at the large trees nearby. This is where he will spend eternity as well.
“I’m actually going to be buried right next to Arthur,” he says with a soft smile. “That’s so cool. I feel so connected to him, like he has been speaking to me all these years.”
David W. Jackson will speak on “Born a Slave: Rediscovering Arthur Jackson’s African American Heritage” at 7 p.m. March 3 at the Claycomo branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library, 309 E. U.S. 69.
The book is available for $20 at orderlypackrat.com/s/books.pdf