Albert Jackson

Albert Jackson, letter carrier (born c. 1857–58 in Delaware; died 14 January 1918 in Toronto , ON). Albert Jackson is thought to be the first Black letter carrier in Canada (see Postal System). Jackson was born into enslavement in the United States, and escaped to Canada with his mother and siblings when he was a toddler in 1858. In 1882, Jackson was hired as a letter carrier in Toronto, but his co-workers refused to train him on the job. While his story was debated in the press for weeks, the Black community in Toronto organized in support of Jackson, meeting with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to have Jackson reinstated. Jackson returned to his post days later and served as a letter carrier for almost 36 years.



Albert Jackson
(courtesy Toronto Public Library)

Early Life

Albert Jackson was one of nine children born to Ann Maria Jackson in Delaware. Jackson and his family were enslaved, and when Albert was still a toddler, his older brothers, James and Richard, were sold (see also Black Enslavement in Canada). This traumatic event separated the family and is said to have led to the death of Jackson’s father. After she learned that more of her children might be sold, Ann Maria escaped enslavement in Delaware with seven of her children. They first arrived in Philadelphia, where they were helped by William Still, an African-American abolitionist who ran a station of the Underground Railroad.

DID YOU KNOW?
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was an American law that stated that refugees from enslavement could be returned to enslavement once captured. The Act led thousands of freedom-seekers to take refuge in Canada, where enslavement had been abolished through the 1834 Slavery Abolition Act. Between 1850 and 1860, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 African Americans settled in Canada, increasing the  Black population to about 60,000.

The Jacksons crossed into Canada, arriving in St. Catharines, Canada West (Ontario), before settling in Toronto. They stayed briefly with Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who had escaped enslavement in Kentucky many years earlier and established Toronto’s first taxi business. Ann Maria eventually rented rooms for her family in St. John’s Ward, a depressed area of the city that was home to many recent immigrants. She earned a living washing clothes and was able to send Albert to school.

First Black Letter Carrier in Canada

After finishing his studies, Albert Jackson applied to work as a letter carrier, a government appointed position. At the time, most Black men in Toronto worked as labourers or in the service industry, with few opportunities beyond (see also Sleeping Car Porters in Canada).

On 12 May 1882, Jackson was hired, making him the first Black letter carrier in Canada. However, on his first day on the job, Jackson’s colleagues refused to train him to deliver mail and his supervisor assigned Jackson to a lower position as a hall porter.

Jackson’s appointment was quickly picked up in the press. On 17 May, The Evening Telegram ran a story with the headline “The objectionable African.” In it, Jackson was described as an “obnoxious coloured man” who had brought on “the intense disgust of the existing post office staff.”

Days later, the Telegram ran an editorial arguing that “Objection to the young man on account of his colour is indefensible… Taxes are not made a penny less to a man because he happens to have dark skin.” The story remained in the press for weeks, with racist incidents in the city and debate swirling through the opinion pages about whether Black people were inferior. One editorial explained that although “inferior races are a fact,” political equality was a reality in Canada. On 29 May, the Black community set up a committee to investigate the entire issue. One member of the committee published a letter to the editor in which he explained that Black people were as capable as anyone when extended the same opportunities.

On 30 May, a delegation of Black Torontonians met with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and demanded that Jackson be trained as a letter carrier. With a federal election less than a month away, Macdonald was eager to gain Black voters’ favour (see also Black Voting Rights in Canada). Three days after the meeting, Jackson was reinstated as a letter carrier.

Albert Jackson, the first Black letter carrier in Toronto, is one of the letter carriers depicted in this photograph, taken circa 1882. Jackson is standing in the fifth row, eighth person from the left.

(courtesy Kennedy & Bell/Library and Archives Canada/e010963829)

After a brief mention in the Globe that Jackson had returned to work “with no objection being raised,” Jackson settled into his job. He worked as a letter carrier for almost 36 years, from 1882 until his death in 1918, delivering mail on a route through Harbord Village.


Personal Life

Albert Jackson married Henrietta Jones in March 1885. The couple had four sons: Alfred, Richard, Harold and Bruce. During his lifetime, Jackson purchased two homes in downtown Toronto. After his death, Henrietta and her sons purchased several more homes in Harbord Village.

Legacy

While Albert Jackson’s story was known to family members for generations, it was mentioned in historian Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book, I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (2007), which was the result of archeological and archival research.

In 2013, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers created a commemorative poster of Albert Jackson. That same year, a laneway in Harbord Village was named after Jackson. In 2015, The Postman, an outdoor play, was performed on the actual doorsteps that Albert Jackson delivered mail to. In 2017, a historical plaque was placed where the Toronto General Post Office once stood — where Jackson picked up his deliveries. In February 2019, Canada Post released a stamp depicting Albert Jackson.

Albert Jackson Postage Stamp

Postage stamp depicting Albert Jackson, released by Canada Post in February 2019.

(courtesy Canada Post)

Further Reading

  • William Still, The Underground Railroad (1872)

  • Colin McFarquhar, “Blacks in 1880s Toronto: The Search for Equality,” Ontario History (2007)

  • Karolyn Smardz Frost, I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (2007)