Early Years and Career
Giles Beecher Jackson was born September 10, 1853, one of four children of Hulda and James Jackson. During Jackson’s formative years, the family lived in Goochland County. Little is known of his father, but, because his mother was enslaved, by law he and his siblings were born into slavery. During the Civil War, Jackson became the body servant of his owner, Charles G. Dickerson, a Confederate cavalry colonel. After the war, he worked for the Stewart family on the Brook Hill estate in Richmond, where he learned to read and write. On November 17, 1874, Jackson married Sarah Ellen Wallace, and together they had fourteen children. Jackson studied law under the tutelage of the Richmond attorney William H. Beveridge, and on November 30, 1887, he became the first African American certified to practice law before the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals—in its day, the equivalent of passing the bar.
In 1888 Jackson wrote the articles of incorporation for the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, of which he was a member. The bank was rooted in the tradition of the benevolent societies and fraternal organizations of the era. By 1907 membership had reached 100,000 with deposits of $330,000 and more than $1.5 million in annual business. Booker T. Washington selected Jackson as his aide-de-camp in 1900 when Washington organized the Negro Business League in Boston. Jackson served as a vice president during the organization’s first three years.
In 1901, United States president Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Jackson an honorary colonel and Jackson participated in the presidential inaugural parade. In time for his second inaugural parade in 1905, Roosevelt renewed the commission and for the occasion Jackson commanded the Third Civic Division, an African American cavalry unit.
In March 1902, Virginia governor Andrew Jackson Montague chartered the Jamestown Exposition Company to organize an event to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown by English settlers. Although the commissioners had not planned to feature black Virginians, Jackson saw an opportunity to highlight their achievements at a time when lynchings were common across the South—forty in Virginia since 1890—and Jim Crow laws enforced strict segregation and second-class citizenship. Following the endorsement of the Jamestown Exposition Company’s president, Fitzhugh Lee, Jackson promoted his idea of a Negro Building that would be home to exhibitions by and about African Americans. He organized the Negro Development and Exposition Company of the United States of America (NDEC), which oversaw construction from its headquarters in Richmond.
The NDEC set up a national board of directors that included both black and white members, and in 1903 President Roosevelt appointed Jackson its director general. The group lobbied Congress for $1.2 million but instead received $100,000 from the Treasury Department; in the meantime, critics charged that Jackson’s effort to create a separate exhibit at the Ter-Centennial only emphasized African Americans’ position in a segregated society. Jackson defended and publicized the venture in his newspaper the Negro Criterion, which also promoted black business in general. In addition, Roosevelt proved to be an important advocate. In a public appearance in front of Jackson’s law office in Richmond, the president, addressing Jackson, congratulated “you and your people on the magnificent showing you have made in your development. I am with you. I assure you and your people that you have my hearty support in the efforts you are making to have a creditable exhibit of the achievements of your race and I commend you in the effort you are making for the betterment of the condition of your race.”
Between April 16 and December 1, 1907, the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, held in Norfolk, attracted three million visitors. The Virginian-Pilot reported that the Negro Building was indeed “an excellent showing” and was one of the most well attended and well awarded venues at the exposition. The official record estimates that at least 750,000 visitors visited the Negro Building, and the exhibition won 162 medals: 25 gold, 51 silver, and 86 bronze. Following the success of the exhibitions at the Negro Building, organizers, led by Jackson, published An Address and Appeal to the White People seeking support to relocate the Negro Building to Richmond as a permanent national museum. The Richmond News Leader declared that “the Negro exhibit at the exposition is universally regarded as one of the best on the grounds, and its removal to Richmond would be a matter, not only of considerable interest, but of substantial value to the city.” Because the organizers could find no financial support the Negro Building was dismantled, as were the other buildings at the Jamestown Exposition. In 1908, Jackson published The Industrial History of the Negro Race of the United States, which provided a history of the exhibition, as well as of African American achievements in business and the arts.
During World War I (1914–1918), Jackson was appointed chief of the Negro Division of the U.S. Employment Service in Washington, D.C., serving until June 30, 1919. He spent the last four years of his life lobbying Congress on behalf of a commission to address interracial labor problems and, more generally, the working conditions of African Americans. Although both U.S. presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge expressed support for such a commission, they took no action. Separate bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May 1920, December 1923, and June 1924 and in the U.S. Senate, and Jackson testified on behalf of the Senate bill on May 24, 1924. None of the bills passed, however, and Jackson became ill while attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in June 1924. He died on August 13, 1924.