Jackson, James A.

views updated

James A. Jackson

Editor, journalist, promoter

Aversatile man, James A. Jackson worked through three highly visible arenas to promote black cultural and economic development. As editor of the Negro Department of Billboard magazine, he was a major influence in promoting black theatricals during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He was also well-connected with black and white professional, commercial, and industrial groups and, due to his work with the U.S. Department of Commerce, was regarded as an eminent advisor on African American business activities. He traveled widely and aided and encouraged black commercial development and encouraged industrial training to prepare youth for commercial enterprise. As a public relations specialist of Standard Oil Company, Jackson became one of the first African American salespersons of the mid-1930s to promote his business in the African American market.

In 1773 a group of Quakers who had bought the Jackson family's freedom from Portuguese traders in Portsmouth, England, brought the Jacksons to America. They settled in the area later known as Centre County, Pennsylvania. Before his marriage, James Jackson's father, Abraham Jackson, was engaged in show business as a member of the McMillen and Sourbeck Jubilee Singers, a commercial singing group formed in Bellefonte. Later on, but before the group became widely known as the Stinson's Singers, Abraham Jackson left the singers and married. James Albert Jackson was born in Bellefonte (sometimes spelled Belfonte), Pennsylvania, on June 20, 1878, to Abraham Valentine and Nannie Lee Jackson—the oldest son of their fourteen children.


Born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania on June 20
Leaves home to study and support himself; joins Ed Winn's Big Novelty Minstrels around this time
Becomes journalist for Today newspaper in Detroit
Becomes first black bank clerk with the Chicago Jennings Real Estate and Loan Company
Joins U.S. Railroad police around this time
Heads investigation and inspection for Standard Life Insurance Company; begins newspaper work for the New York Globe
Becomes editor of the Negro Department of Billboard magazine; writes "Jackson's Page"
Writes articles for the New York Sunday Herald
Writes articles for Chicago Defender
Becomes first head of Negro Affairs for U.S. Department of Commerce
Becomes first black marketing specialist for Esso Standard Oil Company
Becomes first black member of the American Marketing Association
Dies in New York City on November 15

James A. Jackson was educated in Bellefonte's public schools and Bellefonte High School. In 1894–95 he worked as a reporter for two local newspapers, the Bellefonte Daily Gazette and the Daily News, apparently over the objections of his mother. Jackson is quoted in The Colored Situation as saying that, when he was fourteen years old, his mother refused to permit him to learn newspaper work. She also refused to allow him to work with a local white doctor who wanted him to learn medicine, for "she was sincere in her belief that there was no place for a Negro in either calling," he said. His mother was familiar with only four African American newspapers, and they were small, two-sheet publications for which she had no respect. Likewise, she knew little about the accomplishments of blacks in medicine and had known of only two doctors—one in Washington, D.C., and another in Chicago. "I longed to be an editor," he continued, and his persistence toward fulfilling his ambition paid off. Meanwhile, the large Jackson family put a strain on the family's income. James Jackson left home around 1896 to earn money on his own and to continue his education. He appears to have moved to Cleve-land, Ohio where he continued to write. He also worked as a bellboy and dining room employee in Cleveland's Hollender Hotel. There he met Richard B. Harrison, later a dramatist and college arts instructor, who taught him elocution.

Around this time Jackson became an advance man for Ed Winn's Big Novelty Minstrels and also sought out feature players. When Winn's show closed, Jackson had to find other ways to support himself and pursue his education. It is unclear if he attended college. He spent his winters earning enough money to support his summer school work. With a firm knowledge of show business and some education, he became a good representative for the minstrel shows. He appears to have traveled with minstrels between 1896, when he first left home, and 1900. In that year he worked with Richard and Pringle's Georgia Minstrels, featuring Billy Kersands. Around 1900 as well, he was a journalist for Today, an afternoon newspaper in Detroit. He left for Chicago a year later and took a civil-service examination. Since the results were slow to come, he spent much time in Daddy Love's place, located at the corner of 27th and State Street. Actors gathered there between seasons, and Jackson met and became friendly with many of them.

In 1902, Jackson accepted a post as bank clerk with the Chicago Jennings Real Estate and Loan Company, becoming the first person of color in the state to hold such a post. When off duty, he was part-time usher at the famous Pekin Theater and on hand for its historic opening in 1904. It was the first black-owned theater in the country and became important for stage productions and concert series. It was also the home of the Pekin Stock Company, the first black theatrical stock company.

Jackson passed the civil-service examination and for a number of years was a member of the U.S. Railroad police. As a road officer, he traveled throughout the country to investigate various cases; one of them was the infamous Harrison Gang. Headed by Jeff Harrison, the Harrison Gang was involved in what was called the "World's Greatest Train Robbery."

In 1912 Jackson was in charge of investigation and inspection for Standard Life Insurance Company. Jackson went on to engage in newspaper work for the New York Globe (1912), the New York Sunday Herald (1920), and the Chicago Defender (1921). According to Henry T. Sampson in Blacks in Blackface, his two best serial works were published in the Globe: "The Negro at Large" in 1912 and "The Underlying Cause of Race Riots" in 1919. The New York Sun published several of his feature stories in 1921 and the New York Herald carried others in the magazine section of its Sunday edition. He collaborated with other authors and published in national magazines and foreign newspapers. During World War I, Jackson was one of the two agents-in-charge of the U.S. Military Intelligence Bureau and worked in the "Plant Protection" section.

Promotes Black Entertainment in Billboard Magazine

According to Blacks in Blackface, at some time in the 1920s Jackson was owner/manager of two theaters in Columbus, Ohio—the Empress (for motion pictures) and the Dunbar (for vaudeville, or road shows). By age forty in 1918, Jackson had joined the editorial staff of Billboard in New York City, then the largest theatrical paper in the world, and was so prominent in his work as editor of the Negro Department that he was given the nickname "Billboard." Jackson was the first African American reporter hired by a major white theatrical magazine. Billboard hoped to increase its circulation by tapping a new market, and Jackson helped make the magazine popular among black entertainers. Beginning with the November 6, 1920 issue, he wrote a regular column called "Jackson's Page"; the black press copied his articles, adding the byline "Billboard" Jackson. According to Bruce Kellner for The Harlem Renaissance, "by 1919 he had become the most widely read black show-business newspaperman in America." His work brought him in contact with many black luminaries, including those of the Harlem Renaissance.

Through the magazine Jackson celebrated the achievement of blacks in the entertainment industry and also helped them to set high moral standards. He encouraged performers to join theatrical organizations. He exposed the conditions surrounding those involved with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), a large employer of black entertainers, by airing the unfair treatment they received. His writings stimulated the formation of several professional organizations, such as the Colored Actors' Union, the National Association of Colored Fairs, and the Deacons. For his page, Jackson collected information on all aspects of entertainment, including the circus, burlesque, music and opera, street fairs, and vaudeville. He published several annual surveys of the industry, presenting data that he compiled. Thomas Fletcher wrote in 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business that "his record of achievements … [was] one of the most imposing anywhere." He served Billboard from 1919 to 1925 when lack of advertising forced retrenchment. While in that post, he was also executive correspondent in New York for Claude Barnett's Associated Negro Press, which led to his next post, this time in the business arena.

Heads Black Affairs for the Commerce Department

African American businesses grew rapidly during the first three decades of the 1900s. Thus, there was a need to find a person who could work with the U.S. Department of Commerce to help make its publications and activities meaningful to black entrepreneurs. Claude A. Barnett (1889?–1967), founder of the powerful Associated Negro Press (ANP), persuaded the Republican administration to hire Jackson as "Negro information specialist" to serve this need. While the Republicans were no great friends of black America, they knew that the National Negro Business League had strong ties to the Republican Party and, of course, the presidential election of 1928 was coming up. Thus, in May 1927, Barnett notified the administration and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover that he had a candidate for the post, "Billboard" Jackson.

In Enterprise & Society, Robert E. Weems Jr. and Lewis A. Randolph chronicled James Jackson's life as promoter of "Negro Affairs" for the U.S. Department of Commerce beginning November 1927 and ending in 1933. They wrote that, although Jackson failed to "generate the direct financial assistance to black entrepreneurs" associated with later federal initiatives, he pioneered in efforts "to provide black businesspeople with useful information," and he "helped to positively reshape contemporary African American entrepreneurs' belief about the role of government in their lives."

Jackson's appointment was surrounded by racial issues and began and ended in the midst of political maneuverings. His duties began on November 15, 1927, and his race was withheld to avoid criticism from whites in the department. Thus, he was referred to as a dark-skinned foreigner, whom whites could accept over a black American. While Jackson passed a civil service examination and was hired for the position of commercial agent, the Commerce Department's "Daily Bulletin" listed him as an assistant business specialist. Jackson and the department remained at odds over how his post would be publicized, particularly in the African American business community that he was hired to serve. Political overtones arose when the department envisioned the forthcoming presidential election with Hoover in the race and again feared negative reaction from whites. Finally, the department officials resolved the matter of title and called him special agent; a commercial agent designation was reserved for the department's foreign staff.

Jackson attended a meeting of African American leaders from the field of business, education, religion, and elsewhere in the community, which was held in Durham on December 7-9, 1927. Called the Durham Fact-Finding Conference (also known as a Stock-Taking and Fact-Finding Conference on the American Negro) the session provided Jackson's introduction as a Department of Commerce official. The conference dealt with a number of issues, including black business organizations, health conditions of the race, religious progress, political progress, insurance (including fraternal, mutual, and life), educational progress, and black relations everywhere. In his address to the audience, Jackson noted that there were no African American organizations on the bureau's list of contacts.

By early 1929, both the Department of Commerce and Hoover, who was now in office, displayed some sensitivity toward racial parity, at least in the matter of business. Some of the changes were due to the pressure brought to bear on Hoover by Barnett, who was also secretary of the Colored Voters Division of the GOP as well as wielder of the power of the Associated Negro Press to give positive news coverage to the administration. Barnett's efforts were partly devoted to ensuring that Jackson was treated fairly. Jackson traveled widely in 1929 and 1930, visited 34 cities, and gave presentations to nearly 30,000 people. He also held numerous interviews in his Washington office and responded to inquiries regarding research. According to Weems and Randolph, "the primary message Jackson presented to the black business community was that of self-help." He also attended the second Durham Fact-Finding Conference on April 17-19, 1929, and told the audience that the general public expected black entrepreneurs to bear full responsibility for themselves.

As he called for efficiency in black business operations, he criticized blacks for patronizing non-black businesses but fell short of endorsing the "buy black" practice that was gaining in popularity around that time. The Colored Merchants Association (CMA), however, embraced Jackson's call for business efficiency, for it, too, advocated such practice. The CMA, organized in Montgomery, Alabama in 1928, spread rapidly across the country and was especially active in Harlem. Albon L. Holsey, National Negro Business League secretary, organized chapters across the country. The CMA advocated cooperative purchasing and advertising in an effort to keep costs low for black consumers. Jackson aided the CMA movement by holding a three-month training course in Harlem for grocers on issues such as business efficiency and modern management. He also compiled extensive data about black businesses for the Department of Commerce, and surveyed national, state, and local African American organizations, thus providing the department extensive information about black enterprises.

Hoover and his administration never took Jackson's work seriously but appeared to use him for whatever political gains they could garner. The African American community, according to Weems and Randolph, linked Holsey's and Jackson's interest in Hoover and the Republicans to "class considerations." The black masses, who were hit hard when the Great Depression of the 1930s worsened, began to oppose Hoover and the Republican Party and later embraced Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal public assistance. After the presidential election of 1932, Republicans Hoover and Jackson were out of office; Democrat Eugene Kinckle Jones (1885–1954), a National Urban League official, replaced Jackson.

Holds Marketing Post with Standard Oil

Jackson had indeed performed well, yet he was unemployed for two years. His skills and connections then led him to a post with Esso Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, which he served as special representative to the African American community. At that time, Standard Oil was perhaps the largest business enterprise in the world. Beginning in 1934, Jackson was one of the few blacks working in such a capacity for a major white company. He became an asset to Standard Oil and was promoted several times. He knew the African American market very well—something that proved beneficial to Standard Oil—and he helped aspiring young blacks prepare for service as filling station-operators. He also prepared them for other business ventures. Writing in Crisis magazine for 1935, Jackson noted that Standard Oil had always maintained a substantial number of blacks on its payrolls; the company "has given every reason for the Negro to look upon the company and its affiliates with favor." His work with Standard Oil made him nationally prominent. Originally hired for six months, he served the company altogether for twenty years. When he was eligible for retirement in 1941, the company kept him on as a special representative in public relations, on a yearly basis, until he retired in 1954.

Jackson was a member of the National Association of Market Developers (NAMD), founded in 1953. By then, many large companies in the United States hired "Negro Market" specialists to help them attract African American consumers. These specialists were never included in the companies' meetings where marketing and strategic issues were discussed and, in fact, were isolated from white market developers. The black specialists reacted by forming a mutual support organization and social network. NAMD's early membership read like a "Who's Who" of African Americans in the business arena, and included one of the most well-known men of such stature, James "Billboard" Jackson. Jackson was also a member of the American Marketing Association, which he joined in the mid-1940s, becoming its first and only black member. He spoke at its 1947 annual convention. He was an advisory board member of Friendship College in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Other memberships included board of director, the National Negro Business League; National Negro Press Association; Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Association of Special Agents; NAACP; National Fair Officials Association; Business Men's Exchange; the Elks; League of Teachers in Business Education; American Teachers Association; founding member, Association of Business Education; board of trustees, Pioneer Business Institute (in Philadelphia); Clef Club (which he also served as honorary vice president); Florence Mills Club; and Negro Actors Guild. As well, he was a 33rd degree active Mason and at one time grand historian, United Supreme Council of the Masons. His social organizations included the Hiawatha Club (Los Angeles); Red Caps (Chicago); DePriest Fifteen (Washington, D.C.); and founder, Tri-Esso Club of Standard Oil Company. In addition to his membership in the Republican Party, he belonged to Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was an active or honorary member of over thirty-seven fraternal and business organizations.

In Pages from the Harlem Renaissance: A Chronicle of Performance, Anthony D. Hill described Jackson as "bright, confident, self-motivated, and [a] indefatigable journeyman." Hill said also that he was "a tall, clean shaven, full-faced, fair-complexioned man with a receding hair-line." By age forty-two, Hill described him as stout and neatly dressed "in his usual professional attire—a dark suit, white shirt, and a tie that exuded the air of a distinguished gentleman." He married Gabrielle Bell Hill on April 6, 1909. Jackson was devoted to his wife, and she accompanied him on many of his early travels for the railroad police. They had one son, Albert, who became an actor on the black stage. While their early addresses are unknown, at least in later life the Jacksons lived at 312 Manhattan Avenue in New York City. Jackson died on November 15, 1960, and was survived by his wife, his son, a brother, and two sisters. His funeral was held at the Grace Congregational Church in Harlem, where he was a member. It was also the church of choice for many show business people, whose profession was not considered honorable unless in performance for the church. Gabrielle Jackson's funeral was held there as well, in 1961. The accounts of Jackson's life show that he was successful in every major assignment that he undertook and that he became known for his work in these areas, chiefly in promotional work in entertainment, business, and advertising, and in transcending racial barriers



Everett, Faye Philip. The Colored Situation: A Book of Vocational and Civic Guidance for the Negro Youth. Boston: Meador Publishing Company, 1936.

Fletcher, Thomas. 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business. 1954. New York: Da Capo Press. 1984.

Hill, Anthony D. Pages from the Harlem Renaissance: A Chronicle of Performance. New York: Peter Lang, 1966.

Oak, Vishnu V. The Negro's Adventure in General Business. Yellow Springs, OH: The Antioch Press, 1949.

Ottley, Roi, and William J. Weatherby, eds. The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History 1626–1940. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1967.

Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Weems, Robert E., Jr. "National Association of Market Developers (NAMD)." In Encyclopedia of African American Business History. Ed. Juliet E. K. Walker. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Who's Who in Colored America. 7th ed. Eds. G. James Fleming and Christian E. Burckel. Yonkers-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Christian E. Burckel & Associates, 1950.


Jackson, James A. "Big Business Wants Negro Dollars." Crisis 42 (February 1935): 45-46.

"James Jackson, 83, Ex-Esso Publicist." New York Times, 18 November 1960.

Weems, Robert E. Jr., and Lewis A. Randolph. "'The Right Man': James A. Jackson and the Origins of U.S. Government Interest in Black Business." Enterprise & Society 6 (2005): 254-77.


Letters to and from Jackson and other documents related to his work are in the Claude A. Barnett Papers, Chicago Historical Society in Chicago, Illinois; the General Records of the Department of Commerce, Record Group 40, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; and the Hoover Presidential Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa. Personal information is in the National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

                           Jessie Carney Smith

About this article

Jackson, James A.

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article