From river pilot to reverend

New exhibit on the Rev. William Jackson at the M.V. Museum recognizes the early history of the Oak Bluffs summer community.


In the summer of 1870, an African American family from New Bedford rented a cottage in Oak Bluffs for the summer. They enjoyed their time here so much that they returned the following year, bought the cottage, and became regular summer residents. The Rev. William Jackson is the subject of a new exhibit in the Cox Gallery of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. His story illuminates some of the early history of the Oak Bluffs summer community, as well as the larger history of the times through his involvement with the Underground Railroad, the abolition movement, and in the Civil War.

Jackson and his wife Jane lived in tumultuous and difficult times. William Jackson was born free to manumitted parents in Norfolk, Va., in 1818. His father and grandfather were river pilots, and at age 9 William went to work on steamboats between Norfolk and Baltimore. There he would have seen heavy traffic of enslaved people along the river, being sent down South. “I think that was one of the things that made an impression on him,” says his great-great-granddaughter, Valerie Craigwell White, who works to preserve her family’s history and to bring the significance of Jackson’s life to light.

Around the time of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, the family moved to Philadelphia because life was becoming increasingly difficult for free Black people in the South. William continued to work and to educate himself, and in 1842 he was ordained a Baptist minister.

Jackson led churches in Philadelphia, New Bedford, and other cities, where he was active as an abolitionist and as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In 1850, he led a group of his parishioners to free one of the first men who had been captured under the new Fugitive Slave Act, and helped to see that the formerly enslaved man reached safety in Canada. Pastor Jackson was also arrested at the time, and although he was released, Philadelphia had become too unsafe for him, as a well-known opponent of the Fugitive Slave Act. He accepted a one-year appointment to a church in New Bedford, while his wife Jane and their children remained in Philadelphia. He and his wife regularly wrote letters to one another, and many of her letters to him have been preserved, one of which is on display in the exhibit at the M.V. Museum. The letter comes from a difficult time in their lives: Over the course of six months, three of their five children died.

By the mid-1850s, the entire family had moved to New Bedford, where Jackson remained for most of the rest of his life, and where some of their descendants still live. He was the minister of a Baptist church there, and in 1863 he ministered to the 54th Regiment as camp chaplain and was commissioned chaplain of the 55th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, making him one of the first Black officers in the Union Army. After the war, back in his pulpit in New Bedford, he took a vacation to the Island. He and his wife kept working while they were on the Island — she took in boarders, and he worked part-time as a town crier — but it was a relatively quiet time in their remarkable lives. They also entertained friends here, including the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Valerie Craigwell White was born in her great-great-grandfather’s house in New Bedford, but as a child she lived in many different places because her father was in the military. She developed a keen interest in history, and on visits back to see her aunts and uncles, she listened to their family stories. One such story was from her uncle, who said that Jackson was always sure to be back from the Vineyard by Thanksgiving during his retirement years. They would say, “Grandpa didn’t have a good season on the Vineyard, so we’re going to have Taunton turkey for Thanksgiving.” (Taunton turkey was herring.) In later years, she learned that her famous ancestor wasn’t so well-known outside of her family and the local African American community, so she has worked to preserve those family stories and bring them to the larger public while delving deeper into the historical records and setting them in their larger context. Her academic background is in the field of intercultural communications, and she is an experienced university teacher and speaker. She is currently working on a book about the Rev. William Jackson’s life, which will be coming out some time next year.

Jackson’s letters and other effects are now preserved at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s exhibit features documents and a hat on loan from the Whaling Museum, as well as Jackson’s Bbible, which comes from the family’s collections. White will be giving a talk in conjunction with the exhibit, which promises to enrich our understanding of this extraordinary life story. The talk will be held on Friday, Sept. 10, at 4 pm via Zoom. It will be “pay what you will,” with a suggested donation of $5.

For more information about the exhibit and White’s talk, visit