Mother Figure

By Tom Chalkley

A bronze plaque identifies 1320 Eutaw Place as the Lillie Carroll Jackson Museum, but dusty blinds on the front door communicate that the building has been closed for years.  Locked and lightless, the stately rowhouse provides an appropriate symbol for Jackson's memory, which has itself gathered dust since her death 25 years ago.

In the 1930s, this Baltimore-born crusader, known to her contemporaries as "Dr. Lillie" and "Ma Jackson," pioneered the nonviolent tactics that would bring an end to legal racial segregation decades later.  "Without a doubt," says Louis Fields, executive director of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council, Jackson was "the mother of the civil-rights movement.  She did her work at a time when Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King hadn't even been heard of."

"Mother," in Jackson's case, is more than an honorific.  She was, literally, the matriarch of Baltimore's black leadership.  Her daughter and fellow activist, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, became the lead counsel for the Baltimore chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Jackson's son-in-law, Clarence Mitchell Sr., served as the NAACP's chief national lobbyist; her descendants include state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV and Baltimore City Council member Keiffer Mitchell.  In her own right, Lillie Carroll Jackson presided over the NAACP's Baltimore chapter from 1935 to 1970, building it from a dispirited handful of members into the largest chapter in the nation.

Jackson's greatest achievement, however, was leading a series of legal, legislative, and grass-roots campaigns that dismantled Maryland's system of racial segregation and provided models that would be replicated throughout the United States.  In 1931, she and her daughter Juanita--who was then 18 years of age--organized a street-level campaign under the slogan "Buy Where You Can Work," persuading black Baltimoreans to boycott businesses with racist employment policies.  In 1942, she began a massive drive to register black voters.  Many of her successes came through her personal powers of persuasion--and tireless nagging. Maryland Gov. Theodore McKeldin famously said, "I'd rather have the devil after me than Mrs. Jackson.  Give her what she wants."

The biggest victories came about through the Baltimore NAACP's legal pressure:  equalization of pay for white and black teachers in public schools (1938); the end of whites-only admissions at the University of Maryland School of Law (1953); the passage of Baltimore's Fair Employment Practices law (1958); and desegregation of facilities ranging from city golf courses and swimming pools to state parks and public schools.  The latter victories were spearheaded by Juanita Mitchell--under her mother's supervision.

Born in Baltimore on May 25, 1889, Lillie Carroll grew up in a proud family that traced its lineage to a free African-born man who settled in Maryland, John Bowen, and to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  In 1908, she married Keiffer Jackson, a Methodist evangelist who toured the country showing religious and educational movies.  Lillie Jackson's brand of social agitation grew directly from her religious philosophy, foreshadowing the nonviolent practices of Martin Luther King Jr.  She taught her children "not to hate," Jackson told the Evening Sun in 1969.  But, she added, "it does not mean that because we do not hate that we do not fight."

Jackson's aphorisms warrant their own page in Bartlett's.  "Freedom isn't free," was a favorite saying; another went, "God opened my mouth and no man can shut it."  Anticipating Jesse Jackson, she routinely exhorted followers to "be somebody."

In her will, Lillie Jackson called for her Eutaw Place home, where she lived for 22 years, to become a civil-rights museum; the bronze plaque on the building was cast two years before her death.  Consisting mainly of framed memorabilia and household furnishings as the Jacksons had left them, the museum opened in 1976 and enjoyed a modest but steady stream of visitors up to the middle of 1990.  By then, the house had deteriorated to the point where maintenance was unaffordable.

In 1997, the house was placed in the care of Morgan State University.  According to Gabriel Tenabe, director of Morgan's James Lewis Museum, plans have been drawn for renovations and for the installation of an elevator, but the project is stalled for lack of funds.  Donations to the Morgan State Foundation, Tenabe says, can help the university win matching money offered by the state of Maryland some years ago.  In the meantime, the paint peels and the dust gathers; much archival material has been removed from the house for safe storage.

In view of race relations and the overall state of black Americans, it might be said that "Ma" Jackson's legacy is as badly off as the house on Eutaw Place.  The edifice--the laws and policies she helped establish--still stands, but it needs a lot of work.

© 2000 Baltimore City Paper, May 17-23, 2000