Family cheers stamp honouring likely first Black Canadian letter carrier

By Ian Robertson

historic Toronto building echoed with applause and music for the launch of a commemorative honouring a man “thought to be Canada’s first Black letter carrier,” the 10-stamp booklet notes.

Albert Calvin Jackson’s descendants and four Members of Parliament were among more than 300 people attending the 2019 Black History Month stamp, which was launched Jan. 24. Designed by Andrew Perro and illustrated by Ron Dollekamp, the Permanent commemorative was released the following day and shows Jackson in uniform while holding letters.

“This is like a family reunion,” Canada Post communications vice-president Jo-Anne Polak said in her opening address.

“The story of Albert Jackson has been absolute magic,” his great-granddaughter, Shawne Jackson-Troiano, said.

Descendants knew little until an archeological dig in 1985 at a Toronto home uncovered artifacts, including birth and marriage certificates of the family, her brother Jay Jackson told CBC News two years ago.

A Heritage Toronto plaque where the 1873-1958 Toronto General Post Office building stood recounts his ancestor’s struggle to overcome “racial discrimination” that briefly barred him from doing his job.

Born into slavery in Delaware in 1856, “Jackson’s mother, Ann Maria, fled the state in 1858 with Underground Railroad help after two sons were sold,” the plaque states.

Her “very kind” husband, John, a free black man, wouldn’t leave and died brokenhearted at age 40, African-American abolitionist William Still wrote in his 1872 book The Underground Railroad, quoting the widow.

From Philadelphia, in slavery-free Pennsylvania, Still helped Ann Maria and her seven children reach St. Catharines, Ont.

For my 2016 CSN article on Jackson, Karolyn Smardz Frost – author of the 2007 book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad – told me they were Canada’s largest black U.S. ex-slave family. The two enslaved sons joined them after escaping.

In Toronto, Ann Maria did laundry, her younger children attended school and the oldest sons contributed part of their wages.

At the time, black men rarely had government jobs.

Told he would outrank some co-workers, Jackson was made a letter carrier on May 12, 1882.

When white postal workers refused to train Albert to deliver mail, “his supervisor assigned him to an indoor position as a hall porter,” the plaque notes.

Carriers told The Evening Telegram his appointment was “a most impolitic move,” reporter Isobel Teotonio wrote in The Toronto Star in February 2012.

One 1882 newspaper headline on a story displayed at the stamp launch read “The objectionable African.”

Several black people were publicly assaulted or insulted.

On May 17, an Evening Telegram editorial declared “objection to the younger man on account of his color is indefensible,” adding taxes were usually the same regardless of a person’s race.

Five days later, a letter in The Globe from black Hamilton, Ont. preacher C.A. Johnson demanded the government intervene.

“We feel much ashamed of these postmen, and we believe that the Canadian public condemn them in their heathenish action towards Jackson,” Johnson, editor of a newspaper for freed Americans, added.

THE PM INTERVENES

“Toronto’s Black community organized support for Jackson, arranging a public meeting and creating a committee to advocate for him,” the plaque notes.

A heated press debate ensued, with support from Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, “who was courting Black voters.”

In an interview, Jim Phillips, Canada Post’s director of stamp services, said Macdonald knew Toronto’s postmaster and asked him to personally train Jackson.

He was delivering mail two days later “with no objection being raised,” The Globe reported.

Lawrence Jackson said one partially-blind resident told his grandfather she realized he was a carrier by his footsteps.

“I can tell by your voice that you are a gentle, generous man,” Jackson – the postman’s last living grandson – said, quoting his mother’s stories.

“You don’t have to see anybody to know them … just be kind,” he concluded.

In 1883, Albert Jackson married Henrietta Jones. They had four sons.

Earning a minimum $1.25 daily wage in 1902 – and $3 a day 11 years later – church-going Jackson was a pillar of Toronto’s black community.

He purchased two homes, one of which his family still owns.

After 36 years as a letter-carrier, Jackson collapsed after dinner and died Jan. 14, 1918.

His descendants lauded the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), which campaigned several years for the stamp.

Jan Simpson, CUPW’s first national vice-president and the first black person elected to that position, said the union championed Jackson after learning his story and added “this commemoration means a great deal to me.”

Relatives also praised The Toronto Star, which carried an article in 2012 about Jackson following the publication of Smardz Frost’s book, for which she received a Governor General’s Award in 2007.

In 2013, the City of Toronto designated “Albert Jackson Lane” behind his former home.

Two years later, a play, The Postman, debuted on verandas in his former neighbourhood.

Some historians suggested black men may have been letter carriers in Victoria, B.C. under the British colonial system in the 1850s as well as in Nova Scotia, but no solid evidence was found.

IN-DEPTH RESEARCH

“It took months and months” of research to ensure the stamp image’s authenticity, Phillips told me.

Studies were made of an old uniform, jacket buttons and metal “CPO4” collar insignia in museums.

Dollekamp, a Toronto artist, said he portrayed Jackson in front of Brunswick Avenue homes near where he lived but added 19th-century windows.

“I liked getting the correct satchel,” he said, explaining “there was nothing in any of the photos.”

Elia Anoia, Canada Post’s manager of stamp program development, credited members of the RA Stamp Club in Ottawa with alerting her during a preliminary discussion to a too-early brownish three-cent Small Queen definitive and outdated postmarks on an envelope in Jackson’s hand.

The artwork was altered to show a correct orange version of the Queen Victoria stamp with a machine flag cancel in use when he began his rounds.

Luckily, “we were still in the middle of research,” Anoia said.

Stamp booklet credits include the Canadian Museum of History; Ottawa collector Doug Lingard, who Phillips said provided correct postal history items; Garfield Portch, vice-president of the Toronto-based Vincent Graves Greene Philatelic Research Foundation and a top pre-1900 Toronto postal markings collector; the Town of York Historical Society; and Toronto’s First Post Office.

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