African American Studies


Bessie Jackson is the President of the Bronx branch of the Society for the Association for the study of African American Life and History, founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1915. Jackson came to the Bronx without any family relations in 1946 and finished High School. Jacksonthen returned to her home state ofAlabamato attend Alabama State College, but by 1949, she had returned to and settled in theBronx.

Jacksonwas born and raised on her family’s farm inDallas County,Alabama. She did not begin school until she was six years old, but illness also held her back in first grade. However,Jacksonalways hated farm work and knew from the age of eight she wanted to be a teacher. She also knew from an early age she had to travel and learn, and that meant leaving home. There were no High Schools her home nearby so her parents paid four dollars a month for her to live in someone else’s home during the school year. The parents paid her housing, but they also supplied her food by growing it themselves on the farm. By the time Jackson reached High School, she was older than most her peers and felt ready to leave her parents’ home. When she went to school the Caucasian children who lived with their parents and took the bus to and from school would spit on her and throw pebbles, but she was determined to get the best possible education for herself.

Jacksonhad a home economics teacher who knew her desire to leave home, but also complete High School. The teacher suggested she work the summer inMassachusettsand gaveJacksonthe name of an employment agency that was hiring young Southern women to do housework in the North. In the summer of 1946, Jackson’s first stop with the employment agency was in New York where she picked up the New York Times and saw the Want Ads.

When Jackson was doing domestic work, one of the families she worked for was an Irish whom she liked and felt comfortable around. She negotiated a sleep-in job with the family so she could attendMorrisHigh Schooland work weekends and afternoons. However, the schoolwork and the housework became too much to handle at once and the lady of the house became unhappy with the arrangement.

Jackson attended Morris High School for one year and it was a completely different experience from his other schools, where her peers and the school itself had more money. She had previously enjoyed school, but her year atMorrisHigh Schoolwas her least enjoyable. Before entering Morris High School, she did not know white people discriminated against other white people. There was one math teacher who would constantly antagonize a student, but other students in the class supported her so she could continue her bad behavior between her and the student. The student who had problems was a foster child and this was the first time Jackson ever heard of the foster care system. Jacksonobserved a much more respectful and cordial relationship between teachers, students and parents in the South. There was a large population of African American students at the school, but the school was also very integrated. The principal was Jewish and the teachers were Irish and Jewish, andJacksonliked most of the teachers. The surrounding areas were much more integrated than they are now and most of the students lived in the surrounding areas. The biggest divide between students was a language barrier. However, in Morris High School, they offered language courses and business courses, which she did not receive in the South. Jackson always knew she had to go to college to become a teacher. Jackson initially entered Early Childhood education because she did not receive the literary background in High School that she needed to study to become an English teacher like she truly wanted. She had not entered a library until she attended Morris High School.

The first Church she attended when she came to the Bronx was Tridestone Baptist Church on Boston Road and at the time, it was an entirely African American congregation. When she moved back to the Bronx and married, she lived in an area nearbyMorrisHigh School. After she married and had a baby she stopped, going to church for a while, but later decided to become involved again and she foundFriendshipBaptistChurchinHarlem. She liked Friendship Baptist Church because it was a friendly atmosphere and for the first time in the North, she was meeting professional African Americans. (In the South, she had always known profession African Americans.) In the 1950s, an African American woman with a high school degree could work jobs other than domestic service and for a while, she worked for at AT&T.

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Jackson, Bessie Interview 1.mp3 (77150 kB)