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Charleston to Washington
As was the case with many Blacks of my generation born in the South, my birth was not officially recorded. I was born at home, not in a hospital, and the church my family attended did not keep birth records in any organized fashion. This circumstance later caused me considerable frustration when I tried to get a passport and other official documents requiring proof of birth. But as narrowly as I can pinpoint it, I was born on November 3, 1915, in Charleston, South Carolina. I was the fifth child, and third son, of Eugene Baron Jackson and Laura Rivers Jackson. My given name was Harold Baron Jackson, but I was never called Harold. My childhood nickname was Peaches, or Peachy, because when I was a baby I didn't like peaches. Later on, when I decided that nickname was too babyish, I started calling myself Hal.
My father, Eugene, was a fair-skinned man with straight hair, born of a well-respected Charleston family. His mother, Estelle Baron Jackson, was a slender, very fair mulatto woman who could have passed for White. Neither she nor my father ever made mention of my grandfather. I don't even know his name. All I ever knew of him was that he was a well-to-do White gentleman and that my grandmother bore him three sons and a daughter throughout the course of their relationship.
My mother was dark-complected, and I have been told that she was born to the Reverend and Mrs. James Rivers on James Island, one of the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast. My mother's people, like most of the Sea Islanders, were descendants of escaped slaves who had sought refuge on the island's isolated shores. That isolation enabled them to retain many of thecustoms and language forms of their African homeland. As a small child, I remember being fascinated by the cadence of my mother's speech and her glowing, golden brown skin. But there were some people on my father's side of the family who thought that these same attributes were unforgivable flaws. They rarely missed an opportunity to whisper about how my father had married beneath him.
My father was a tailor, and by the time I was born, he had a shop on Society Street across from the Charleston Hotel. His main contract was with the U.S. Navy, making uniforms for the Citadel. The business was lucrative enough for us to afford a house at 18 Charles Street in one of the better Black residential areas of the city. It was an imposing wood-framed house built in traditional Southern style. The ground floor had a porch that wrapped around the entire length of the house. My mother's ferns and bright flowering houseplants covered that porch from end to end. She arranged them on the shelves of a tall, handsomely built plant stand that had been designed especially for her because she wanted the house to have a warm, welcoming look. Both the second and third floors had porches that faced out onto the backyard. We had a stable in the backyard for our horse and surrey. Later, when we became the first Black family in the city to buy an automobile, my father had the stable converted into a garage.
Everything in the house was elegant. On the first floor, there was a living room, back parlor, dining room, and kitchen. The living room, awash in bright reds and yellows, had a love seat, oversized chairs, and antique tables. Showcased in the front of the room was a grand piano that was almost identicalto the baby grand piano in the parlor. Plush carpeting and handwoven rugs covered the floors. My parents' bedroom was on the second floor; my two sisters, Esyelee and Alice, also had rooms there. My brothers, Leroy and Eugene, and I had our rooms on the top floor. All day long, servants bustled around the house. We had two maids, a laundry woman, a stable hand, and a cook, who all worked under my mother's careful supervision.
As a child, I never played with the few other children who lived in our middle-class neighborhood. Though my parents never said anything specifically, my brothers and sisters and I got the distinct impression that those other children weren't good enough to be our friends. We never went to public school either because our father didn't approve of the quality of education at the Black public schools. He always told us that all they taught in the Black schools was washing, ironing, cooking, and cleaning, and that was not what we were born for.
To make up for our lack of companionship, we got toys and presents. Any toy you can name, we had. As I recall, my brothers and I played a lot of baseball. My two sisters had instructors come to the house in the afternoons to teach them knitting, crochet, embroidery, and music. In fact, there was always music in my house. My oldest sister Esyelee, whom we all called Essie, attended and graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music. She was the first Black ever to attend the conservatory. Alice, meanwhile, studied the violin at home.We had a large backyard, and my father allowed me to keep the goat there. In the evening, the goat would climb the stairs to the house and cuddle up on the floor next to my bed. He seemed to love being near me and quickly became very attached. The feeling, of course, was mutual. To me, that little goat was more than just a pet. At that point, he was my only friend. But one day, in the middle of a jealous tantrum, my oldest brother Eugene picked up my goat and dropped it over the banister of the porch outside my bedroom. The goat plunged three flights of stairs to the ground. One of its legs was broken, and my father had to take it to the vet to have the leg splinted. I remember crying and crying and not understanding that kind of senseless cruelty to an innocent animal. My confusion and intense feelings of anger and indignation lingered long after the goat's leg healed...
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