Before Rosa Parks there was Ellen Garrison Jackson

Herb Boyd | 1/30/2020, 4:34 p.m.
In her opinion piece in the New York Times on the film “Little Women,” Kaitlyn Greenidge evoked Ellen Garrison Jackson, ...

In her opinion piece in the New York Times on the film “Little Women,” Kaitlyn Greenidge evoked Ellen Garrison Jackson, a Black girl coming of age in Concord, Mass., whom she contrasted with the white girls in “Little Women.” She pointed out that like Louisa May Alcott, the author of the novel on which the film is based, Ellen was the product of a family of socially committed activists.

Ellen would join several other activists in 1866 in the filing of petitions against discrimination in public transportation nearly a century before Rosa Parks and the emergence of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Of course, all of this was new to me and I began to inquire into her life and contributions, which was well-documented in the archives and newspapers in Concord.

Born Ellen Garrison in 1823 in Concord, her father, Jack Garrison, escaped slavery in New Jersey. Her mother, Susan Robbins Garrison, was the daughter of Caesar Robbins, a Revolutionary War veteran. He was a skilled farmer and laborer.

Ellen attended Concord’s public schools, and, like her siblings, was a bright and intelligent student. She grew up amid a progressively active household where her parents often hosted a number of notable abolitionists. Among the visitors were Angelina and Sarah Grimke, and her mother and the sisters founded the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Concord. In 1838, Ellen and her mother’s name were listed among 200 other Concord women on a petition protesting the government’s treatment of the Cherokee.

Three years earlier, Ellen, at 12, as the city prepared for its bicentennial celebration, told her teacher that her mother had forbidden her to march in the procession. As the only Black child in her school, Ellen had been treated badly and ruled out of previous parades. But eventually both were persuaded to march in the procession, in which Ellen held the hand of a white classmate.

Shortly after her mother’s death in the 1840s, Ellen moved to Boston and almost immediately became a member of the African Baptist Church where her uncle Obed Robbins was among the founders. Along with her church commitments she began teaching. She and several other activists launched a celebration of the community’s abolitionists and began arousing the populace in signing petitions against discrimination in the public transportation and the school system.

In 1857, she married John Jackson, a free Black farmer from Delaware, but within a few years he died, and she moved to Newport, Rhode Island where she was placed in charge of a small private school. After the Civil War, she moved to Maryland to teach the recently emancipated, though she was often met with hostility and rebuke. Soon, she was as active here as she was in the North, often joining other members of her community in pushing for more civil and human rights.

On May 5, 1866 in a Baltimore train station after being forcibly removed, Ellen, along with another woman, contacted the local paper and reported the incident. This was done after she returned to the station and gathered more witnesses. Many of her friends and associates believed her situation would be the first test case of the month-old Civil Rights Act, but in July a Maryland grand jury dismissed her suit against the railroad. Even so, it would be among the many incidents to challenge the bulwark of a Jim Crow system that was to become even more intransigent.

By 1877, Jim Crow laws were fully in effect, following the Tilden-Hayes debacle. Faced with increasing reaction from nightriders and hostile managers of southern cities, many African Americans heeded the call to venture west, and Ellen quickly joined what became the “Exodusters” seeking better opportunities in places like Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. Once settled in Barton, Kansas, she married a landowner named Harry Clark from South Carolina. Throughout the 1880s, she devoted much of her time to civic organizations and teaching, a career that earned her great praise from the city leaders.

Not much is known about Ellen near the end of her life, but it was noted that she owned her land and continued to inspire students at the local colored school. According to the collection of family history at the Robbins House in Concord, Ellen died in the 1890s, and other details of her active life and legacy can be found at this historic landmark.

A tweet from Martha Hazard-Small emphasized this research suggestion, noting the significance of Ellen’s forebears as well as the important role African Americans have played in the history of New England, the South and out west.