William Jackson was an African-American man who was born in Norfolk, Virginia during the early nineteenth century. Jackson grew up in the port city of Norfolk, Virginia and even served on a schooner as a young man. But, he soon found that the marine life was not the life for him and he entered the Baptist Church. Jackson studied to become a pastor and eventually found himself as a leading member of the Baptist church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He led a group of ninety-five worshippers who broke from the Second Baptist Church to form their own congregation, the Salem Baptist Church, in 1858. In addition to serving as pastor, the Reverend Jackson was also a well-known figure on the underground railroad. During the American Civil War, he was appointed chaplain to the all African-American regiment from Massachusetts. His former home in New Bedford is now a private residence, but it is still an important landmark on the New Bedford Historical Society’s Black History Trail.
When William Jackson was born in
Norfolk, Virginia, during the early nineteenth century, his father was working as
a harbor pilot in the port. They were free
African-Americans living in the southern part of the country. In 1831, the
family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. William worked on the schooner “Vandalia”
when he was only sixteen years old. He
suffered great hardship on the vessel. Soon after his return, Jackson entered the
Baptist Church, where he studied to become a pastor. He was ordained as the minister of the Oak
Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia in September 1842. He served as pastor at
several churches in Philadelphia, New York and Delaware before he moved on to
New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In the late 1850s, he was serving
as the pastor of the Second Baptist Church on Middle Street. The Second Baptist
Church was established in 1844, when members of the Third Christian Church
(formerly the African Christian Church) withdrew from the congregation. Its
first pastor was Reverend Thomas U. Allen. Reverend Jackson served as pastor
for a brief time in 1851. A few years
later, he returned to the post (1855) and led the congregation until another
portion of the membership withdrew to form the Salem Baptist Church. In 1858,
approximately 95 members of the Second Baptist Church left the parish to form
the Salem Baptist Church. They were led by Reverend Jackson.
The American Civil War broke out
while Reverend Jackson was serving as the pastor at the Salem Baptist Church. African
Americans weren’t allowed serve in the military right away, but President
Abraham Lincoln changed that law. In the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), he declared
that black men, as long as they were capable, had the right to serve in the
military. The first call for African-American soldiers came from Governor
Andrew of Massachusetts. He established the 54th Regiment Massachusetts
Volunteer Infantry. Reverend Jackson became chaplain of this regiment in 1863,
and later became Chaplain of the 55th Regiment.
It is widely held that Jackson was the first African-American
commissioned as an Officer in the Army.
Once the war was over, Reverend
Jackson returned to his parish and his home in New Bedford. Prior to the war, the home was also believed
to be a station on the underground railroad. Jackson is well-known to have used
his position and his home to harbor fugitive slaves. The home is situated on a
very small parcel of land in New Bedford (only 0.155 acres). It is a colonial-style single-family house
built approximately 1858. The exterior
is clapboard, which was common construction for the time period. Currently, the
home is used as a private residence and is not open for tours. It is listed as a landmark on the New Bedford
Historical Society’s Black History Trail.