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Black History in Washington Subject of Professor's Research

Maurice Jackson

History professor Maurice Jackson says he wants to write a book to help people understand how African Americans have been an integral part of the nation’s capital for over two centuries.

February 15, 2012 – Georgetown history professor and alumnus Maurice Jackson wants to write about every phase of African American life in Washington, D.C. – from the time slaves were held in pens, during calls for democracy – to today’s gentrifying neighborhoods.

“You come in a hunched position and keep rising, rising, rising,” he said of the slow progress in the District since the 1700s, “and at every step you have a weight on your back to knock you down.”

Jackson is working on a book called Halfway to Freedom: A History of African-Americans in Washington, D.C.

Freedom and Equality

“African-Americans came to this city – most as enslaved Africans and some as free people of color – as whites demanded their freedom,” says Jackson, whose first book was Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (2009). “Much of that freedom for whites was built on the backs of blacks, whose forced labor built many of the structures we link to democracy like the Capitol.”

But the professor is also looking at the many positive successes of African Americans here including those related to Dunbar High School, the nation’s first high school for Black students.

“Between 1870 and 1955, Dunbar was one of the best schools in the country,” Jackson says.

Physicians, Musicians, Teachers

Dunbar’s attendees included Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950), who improved techniques for blood storage and transfusions, as well as jazz pianist and composer Billy Taylor (1921-2010).

Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), who taught at Dunbar, was born a slave and became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in Paris.

“I want to write a book that will help people understand that African Americans have been an integral part of the nation’s capital, for over two centuries,” Jackson says.

Steeped in History

Jackson has amassed a large number of facts. He can tell you how 1870s laws prohibiting racial discrimination in the city were later ignored, and how Mary Church Terrell and others discovered those “lost laws,” which led to sit-ins in the 1950s testing the unwritten segregation codes.  

“I’ll work my way up from African Americans struggle against slavery,” he says. “And I’ll look at the racial problems during World War II, the 1960s and today.”

Jackson, a former longshoreman and activist, is a 2011-2012 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

When he comes back to Georgetown in the fall, the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame inductee will teach a class called Slavery and Freedom in Washington, D.C.

All that Jazz

An affiliated professor of jazz at Georgetown, Jackson wrote the liner notes for “Come Sunday,” by Charlie Haden and Hank Jones. The CD, released this past January, was Jones’ last recording.

Haden, who is one of Jackson’s closest friends, first asked him to write the liner notes for the musician’s 1997 recording of spirituals with Jones, “Steal Away.”

Writing the notes for "Come Sunday" wasn't easy, he says.

“You have to listen to the music first, then research the history of every song, and you only have two or three days to write them” Jackson says. “Slaves first sang these Negro spirituals and they were sung by blacks and whites during the struggle for civil rights in the South.”

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