Story by Ken Krayeske • 8:45 PM EST
Justice Robert H. Jackson lunches with American officers at Dachau during Easter weekend in 1946.
D espite Supreme Court Justice Robert Houghwout Jackson's desegregationist actions while serving in both the executive and judicial branches, he appears to have harbored the racist sentiment of his day, that blacks were different and inferior to whites.
Jackson served in the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Solicitor General and Attorney General, and then in 1941, President Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court. While Jackson was scrupulous about avoiding conflicts of interest, as far as race goes, Jackson appears to have seen skin color as a sign of genetic inferiority.
As Jackson refused to tar his predecessors on the Supreme Court by questioning their racial bias, it may be arguably improper to root through Jackson's closet and find skeletons showing that he was an elite, white man of his time, viewing the "Negro" as benign, but handicapped by genetics. Jackson, then, seems a Justice who, had he been born 100 years earlier, would've voted with Justice Taney in Dred Scott.
Historical records reveal Jackson as a man with limited experienc with persons with different skin colors than his own. As a child growing up in western New York, Jackson lived a frontier-style existence on the family farm in Jamestown, according to a transcript of an interview he did in 1952 with Columbia University oral historian Harlan B. Phillips. The interview was in anticipation of an autobiography. (The first three chapters of the interview are here as .pdfs: 1, 2, 3. My favorite part of these is Jackson's own handwritten notes in the margins. A similar autobiographical history is here.)
Jackson's great grandfather, Elijah, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on October 27, 1772. Elijah left Litchfield to become one of the first white settlers in a far western Pennsylvania town near the New York border, Spring Creek. Elijah struck camp on November 10, 1797. He made a living rafting timber to Pittsburgh.
"Local history of Warren Country has described Elijah Jackson as a 'stiff' democrat all his life and as a Presbyterian." Elijah Jackson and his wife of Irish extraction, Mary Watt, had 13 children. The youngest was Robert R. Jackson, born in 1829. Robert Jackson tried to make his fortune out west, but eventually moved back east and married Mary Eldred.
"He too was an uncompromising democrat who never hesitated to make it known that he had voted for Franklin Pierce and for every Democratic candidate from then until and including Woodrow Wilson...While he was opposed to the civil war as unnecessary, he announced that he was ready to shoulder his musket when Samuel J. Tilden was deprived of the presidency."
Robert Jackson married Mary Eldred, and their first-born son,
William Eldred Jackson, eventually wed Angelina Houghwout. Their son, Robert H. Jackson, was born February 13, 1892. He was close with his paternal grandparents.
In 1907, Catherine Harris, a 98-year-old African-American woman, had lived on on Fredonia Road in Jamestown in a community known as "Africa" for more than six decades. In 1902, Harris told a newspaper reporter that in 1849, the "Africa" section of Jamestown had more than 100 free black persons.
Fifty years later, Jamestown schools were not segregated. In an unpublished memorandum from February 15, 1954, written as part of deliberations for the Brown v. Board of Education decision which desegregated schools, Justice Jackson stated:
"I must admit to little personal experience to teach the insight necessary to test many of the arguments advanced in these cases. One taught in public schools in a part of the North, where not even a thought was given to segregating the very few Negro pupils, finds it difficult to understand the emotional and traditional background which complicate the present problem."
A month later, on March 15, 1954, Jackson changed the sentence to read: "One whose impressionable years were spent in public schools in a region where Negro pupils were very few and where economic, social and political motives united against segregating them is predisposed to the conclusion that segregation elsewhere has outlived whatever justification it may have had."
Jackson was certainly schooled with African-American children, yet he did not seem to either interact with them. Perhaps "Africa" in Jamestown was off-limits. His careful construction of the March 15 sentence shows that while Jamestown did not suffer from the unbridled racism of the deep south, he does not label it an interracial paradise. But intermarrying was not uncommon, as Catherine Harris was born of a white mother and a black father.
In all the versions of the Brown memo, Jackson opens by discussing the Civil War. His views of the Civil War were shaped by his family, as he told Harlan B. Phillips.
"My people were never sympathetic with the South in the sense of either favoring slavery or favoring disunion. Their attitude was that the abolitionists were a hot-headed, lawless lot of fellows and the slave owners were a hot-headed, lawless lot of fellows who were getting the country into trouble. I must say that the more I have read of those times, the more I sympathize with them and their views."
Jackson then explained how his paternal grandfather discussed Lincoln when the topic came up in school. "I came home praising Lincoln, my grandfather solemnly said 'I voted against him twice.' I thought that was pretty bad. We discussed the question many times after that. Their feeling was that the Civil War, with a little common sense on both sides, could have been avoided, that it was an unnecessary conflict."
His people, he said, were not militaristic. His family "had great prejudices against war and war makers. They were anti that whole way of solving problems." Jackson did not ascribe this pragmatic pacifism to Presbyterianism. Jackson downplayed the influence of organized religion in his familial history. They were never affiliated with a church.
"I can't say that they were religious people particularly. None of my people have ever been fanatics on any subject. They were pretty practical people who were not carried away by either religious emotions or any other."