Maria Petrou


Harold Lee Jackson: A Front Runner in Black Identity in a Post-Abolition World


Slavery is a word that comes with pre-conceived notions. There are implications, emotions, symbolism, memories, and inverted ideas of truth associated with slavery. While studying the art of the Historian’s Craft, we discussed microhistory as a method of historical inquiry. I have used microhistory in this project; I have asked large questions about a small thing to draw conclusions. My class went to the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society and museum to find an object and research how that object influenced or affected the abolitionist movement. My eye was draw to the display case that this machine was held in because it was titled ‘The Spirit of Progress and Dignity’, and I felt that I could make the best contribution to the class project by talking about black progress rather than stereotypical shackles and chains narratives.

Harold Lee Jackson was the owner of the telegraph machine pictured. My project evolved into a study of black progress post-abolition, and how Jackson was at the forefront of this new phase in black history and the greater history of North America. The telegraph machine was one of the many technological devices that he made and used. It is symbolic of the signaling and radio technology he invented and used. Jackson was a technological genius and groundbreaking in his work. He was the first in Chatham and the region to send wireless signals from one place to another. Music was not transmitted on the Chatham radio station until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson was transmitting music from 1920.

Harold was born in 1901, and by age 19 was working with technology that white society in the area had not yet figured out. He was the first person to send signals, messages, and music wirelessly. The community believed that Harold Lee Jackson ‘was crazy’ because he would try to explain his theories about radio waves and signal transmission. He opened Jackson’s Radio Repair in 1925 and was successful in his work.[1] The Woodstock Industrial School implemented a new department called “Wireless Telegraphy” and left it in Harold Lee Jackson’s “capable hands”.[2]

With support from the research coordinators at the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society and museum, I was fortunate enough to trace Jackson’s family and found his granddaughter. Shawn Jackson was a wealth of knowledge that supported my project and quest. She gave me information to propose the way in which Harold Lee Jackson contributed to the greater history of the black community in the late 19th century.

I initially believed that Chatham was a place of refuge and dignity for the black community, a place where African Americans could come to as a sort of “promised land”; however, my research revealed that Chatham was not a perfect place of growth and development. It was a place of challenging race relations. Harold and his wife Hattie wanted their children to leave Chatham for something better.

A component of practicing history is accepting that evidence may prove you wrong, and may lead you in a direction very different from what you expected. I started the project with the intention of allowing my work to take its own steps. To illustrate, I asked big questions, like what is slavery; why were black people targeted; what is progress; what does it mean to achieve freedom. I then went to the museum in Chatham-Kent and one display that struck a chord was labelled ‘The Spirit of Progress and Dignity’. I allowed the museum and its curators to also influence my work, because it was a way to allow the present—a sort of history in the making— to guide my project on past history. I openly allowed serendipity to influence my research journey, and I believe this greatly improved my research outcomes. To ensure I did Harold Lee Jackson, his family, the museum, and the black community justice, I went back to Chatham on my own. The project was becoming detailed and focused, and I wanted to find connections. I wanted to search the archives for connections between Jackson and the rest of the black community, and other signs of progress and dignity that contributes to the history of the Chatham community, and the era after abolition.

I reached out to Shawn Jackson, Harold’s granddaughter to further form my research in my quest for answers about slavery and progress. We had a lengthy discussion where she told me all about her family and everything she could remember her parents and relatives saying about her grandfather. The telegraph machine is just a symbol of the larger history that the black community in Canada lived post-abolition. It is a symbol of how this oppressed race found positivity and dignity as they rose up to resist racial oppression and build community. Though oppressed, the black community gained freedom and independence.

A historian works unofficially in an interdisciplinary field, drawing on archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, geography, psychology, and many other subject areas to arrive at tenable solutions to historical questions. The period after slavery is an important topic, contributes to a broad scope of ‘history’ because it shows the resurgence of black people; the black community, the formation of new history and new memories; a spirit of progress and dignified lives, a version of black power before it became a tagline in the mid-twentieth century.  I have drawn an entire history and conclusions about black history post-abolition from one object in a small museum in a small town.

One of the main outcomes of my research was realizing the importance of entrepreneurship. Jackson’s mother, Effie, owned an Ice Cream Parlor,[3] and many other blacks in Chatham owned businesses. My research, studying Harold and speaking to his granddaughter made me realize that entrepreneurship was a modern concept that rejected a history of slavery. Jackson refused to work for anyone but himself, no matter the hardships, and this was perhaps his was of refusing the shackled past to influence his present and future. He was very wrapped up in his work, dedicated and short with those that did not understand because he was chasing something bigger. The telegraph machine, and his other equipment, was the symbol for progress. For change. For dignity. For a new era of history that was his own. It was black, it was brilliance, and it was the future.

Through my research, I learned that the blacks in a period after abolition, were still looking for their place in society and community. The big questions I asked about the machine from the museum and as follow-up, about Jackson, resulted in my project journey. The analysis of Harold Lee Jackson and his life’s work was an interesting method that I used to find the larger history of slavery, or abolition, through an object in a museum. I used microhistory and a ‘history from below’ method where I also allowed existing elements to influence the path my project took. The Historian’s Craft is a delicate balance; in my practice as a historian I allowed the archive and museum to form a historical narrative and shape my thesis. I have learned that history can be constructed, it can be in the eye of the beholder. However, history can also be misinterpreted and misrepresented, but with the study of the Historian’s Craft, there is always the chance that truth will be uncovered.


“African Canadian Workers: From 1900 to the Second World War.” Government of Canada: Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, Virtual Museum. 2007. Accessed 27 November 2017.;jsessionid=31F210190EED0BE4ADFC9A6E93013E3F?method=preview&lang=EN&id=18693.


Robinson, Gwendolyn, and John W. Robinson. Seek the Truth: A Story of Chatham’s Black Community. Canada: Self-published, 1989.



Suggested Further Reading

Cooper, Afua. “Acts of Resistance: Black Men and Women Engage Slavery in Upper Canada, 1793-1803.” Ontario History 99, no. 1 (2007): 5-17.

Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Paul, Heike. “Out of Chatham: Abolitionism on the Canadian frontier.” Atlantic Studies 8, no. 2 (2011): 165-188.









[1] “African Canadian Workers: From 1900 to the Second World War,” Government of Canada: Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, Virtual Museum, 2007, accessed 27 November 2017,;jsessionid=31F210190EED0BE4ADFC9A6E93013E3F?method=preview&lang=EN&id=18693.


[2] Gwendolyn Robinson and John W. Robinson, Seek the Truth: A Story of Chatham’s Black Community, (Canada: Self-published, 1989), 94.

[3] Ibid., 108.