The Amherst track team in 1890, with Jackson in the front row, second from left.
By Evan J. Albright
In 1892, when northern colleges were almost exclusively white, Amherst stood out for graduating three African-American seniors. Besides William Henry Lewis, the others were George Washington Forbes and William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson. One became an early leader in civil rights; the other a teacher.
George Washington Forbes, Class of 1892, was born in Shannon, Miss., in 1864. He moved to Boston after his Amherst graduation and helped launch a newspaper, the Boston Courant. In Boston, he joined William Henry Lewis and others in attempting to lead a revolt against the dominant force in African-American politics, Booker T. Washington. The Boston group believed that Washington was too willing to exchange civil rights, such as voting rights, for the economic opportunity to own property and businesses.
By 1903, however, Washington and Lewis, at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, reached a rapprochement. Forbes, along with William Monroe Trotter, had started a newspaper for African-Americans, The Boston Guardian, that frequently ran articles and editorials criticizing Lewis and Washington. The internecine conflict between the pro- and anti-Washington forces came to a head in July 1903, when Trotter and his supporters disrupted a speech by Washington in a Boston church. W. E. B. Du Bois would credit “The Boston Riot,” as it came to be known, with launching the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and by 1916 the NAACP’s more militant approach to civil rights replaced the accommodationist approach of Washington.
The Boston Riot was also a watershed for Forbes. Five years earlier he hyperbolically demanded that someone should “burn down Tuskegee,” Booker T. Washington’s school in Alabama; after the Boston Riot, Forbes found he no longer had the stomach for combative politics. He transferred his shares of The Boston Guardian to his classmate Lewis, eschewing politics for a quieter life as assistant librarian at the West Boston branch of the Boston Public Library.
William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson, Class of 1892, owed his college education to U.S. Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts, who paid Jackson’s tuition and expenses. Jackson never forgot that kindness. He devoted his life to helping others obtain the same opportunities.
After leaving Amherst, Jackson moved to Washington, D.C., where he took up teaching at the M Street High School, later renamed Dunbar High School. He married May Howard, who would become one of the most famous African-American sculptors during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. She made busts of several notable leaders of the time, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Laurence Dunbar—and Lewis.
At Dunbar, Jackson taught mathematics and coached sports for 38 years. He served as the school’s principal from 1906 to 1909. He shepherded many of his students to Amherst, which graduated more Dunbar students than any other college outside of the nation’s capital.
It was Jackson who convinced Charles Hamilton Houston, Class of 1915, to attend Amherst. Houston became a prominent lawyer and the architect of
the legal challenge that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that in 1954 ended segregation in U.S. schools.
Jackson retired from Dunbar in 1931; his wife died a few months later. In 1942, Amherst honored him for his work as an educator. He died the following year.