History's Headlines: The Jackson Two

 

Eighty years ago, Allentown High School (now Willian Allen HS) was known for its excellent sports teams. And among the young men that played for those teams were two brothers, African Americans named Jackson.

The older was Robert "Stonewall" Jackson, the younger was his brother, William Elmo Jackson.

No one can say for sure when the first African Americans came to Allentown. They may have been the three African-American servants who came with the dowry of James Allen's wife at their marriage. They were freed in 1778 by Allen's will. It is not known if they stayed in the area.

Others may have come as laborers on the Lehigh Canal in the 1820s. The 1860 census shows six black people in Allentown. The city directory for 1869 includes three black men listed as barbers.

But if the black community was small in the 19th century, it was present. It was reflected in the black church that thrived in the community. No less a figure than General Harry Trexler promised a sum of money to a black pastor. After his death that promise was kept by his wife, Mary.

The Jacksons were both born in Mineral, Virginia, Robert on Oct. 26, 1921. Founded in the 18th century, the town was first named Tolertown after its founder Adam Toler. It was renamed in 1902 due to the mines in the area, among them were 15 gold mines operating in the town during its heyday.

The sons of Robert and Eliza Jackson, the boys were raised in Allentown.

"He (Robert) was famous," recalled his younger brother to the Morning Call in 1996. "I just wanted to emulate him."

It was at Allentown High School that Robert, a football player, got his nickname "Stonewall" from J. Birney Crum himself.

Fate placed Robert Jackson in the World War II generation. In 1942, he was drafted into the then still segregated Army's all black 183rd Engineering Battalion as a combat engineer. His battalion fought out of Luxembourg.

He was with General George Patton when he crossed the Rhine. He was also at Bastogne in the battle of the Bulge. Jackson was highly decorated for his service. He received three Bronze Stars, the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Medal and the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.

With the close of WW II, Jackson returned to the U.S. He decided in 1946 to enter the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. He earned a bachelor's degree in physical education with a minor in social services. He was four-year starting fullback and linebacker on the college's football team.

Jackson also made sports history in 1950 when he became the first African American from a historically black college drafted to play in the NFL when he was selected by the New York Giants. Following his NFL career, Jackson earned a master's degree from Springfield College in Massachusetts and devoted his life to coaching. He coached football, basketball and tennis at Johnson C. Smith University, St. Augustine's College, Shaw University, Texas Southern University and North Carolina College.

Robert "Stonewall" Jackson died on March 14, 2010, at the age of 88.

His younger brother, William Elmo Jackson, was also a skilled athlete, although life took him on a slightly different path.

He got his middle name from an uncle in Virginia who he never met. His father deserted his mother when he was a child. As a youngster, William honed his athletic skills at the Allentown Boys Club at Fourth and Union streets.

"We lived on Willow Street," he recalled in 1996 for the Morning Call's Dick Cowen. "It (the club) had good counselors and a nice library. I could play basketball and I could take a shower there."

His height made him a natural to be attractive to basketball coaches. Among those he remembers most importantly was Ben Greene at Harrison-Morton.

"Ben was the greatest," William Jackson recalled. "In junior high school, I was tall for my age. Ben asked me to go out for basketball. I had a habit of shooting behind my back and not jumping. Ben said, 'That's a stupid shot, you never get off the floor.' Ben had a bamboo stick that he'd swing at my legs to make me jump. He changed my habits."

At Allentown High School, William was a little nervous that everyone would expect him to be a great athlete like his older brother. Although he played basketball and track, his first love was football.

"I was defensive end and half back," he said.

William respected Coach Crum but recalled he made no attempt to be "one of the guys" with his players.

"Bernie Crum never smiled at you," William recalled. "He gave you a stern stare. And if you didn't do your job, he let you know about it immediately."

At graduation form Allentown High School, William was sought for his athletic ability. In 1950, he was recruited by the Cleveland Browns football team. One source says he rejected the offer because of the small salary involved. Another based on Jackson's own recollection was that he was pitted against a 240-pound player against whom he felt he could not compete.

All this happed while William was finishing up his time at Muhlenberg College. He picked Muhlenberg because it gave him the best offer.

"It didn't cost me a thing," he said. "I lived on campus. I had a sponsor, a lawyer, Henry Snyder. If I needed spending money, he gave it to me but never more than $10 at a time."

William Jackson played on Muhlenberg's football team. But he had a bookish reputation because he would carry textbooks with him to away games. He did this because, as he noted, he went to college and played football because it enabled him to get an education, not the other way around.

When he graduated in 1951, William was the first African American to do so from Muhlenberg. His diploma was given to him that year by Ralph Bunche, an African-American political scientist and statesman who was given the Noble Peace Prize in 1950 for his role in peace mediation in the Middle East and who was instrumental in founding the U.N.

Unlike his brother, Jackson left the sports world to take up a career as a microbiologist at the University Hospital of Pennsylvania and later as a forensic microbiologist for the Philadelphia Police Department, helping to solve many cases. He also married and raised several children.

Jackson retired in 1987 and died in 2008. When asked about his sports career, Jackson was reluctant to talk about it.

"I always liked to look forward to the future," he said.