Santa Cruz County History - People

Oscar Thomas "O.T." Jackson
by Phil Reader

As a young man, he had cut hair for a number of years at a small barber shop in the farming community of Watsonville, California. As an old man, he cut hair at a shaving parlor on Railroad Avenue in Oakland. But in between he lived a life which was unthinkable for any descendant of slaves just a single generation removed from the cotton fields. For one brief moment, during the summer of 1883, he stood center stage in most of the major concert halls of the world and headlined numerous command performances before the royal families of Europe. This remarkable man was Oscar Thomas Jackson.

Photo of O.T. Jackson
O.T. Jackson

"O.T." Jackson was born in upstate New York on November 20, 1846 to David and Emma (Lane) Jackson. He joined a family that already consisted of two boys, named Adam and Jethro. The elder Jacksons were former slaves freed when England banned the institution of slavery in its West Indies colony.

After coming to the United States, David Jackson - like so many other freedmen - found it difficult to become integrated into American society. He was a restless sort who traveled from town to town working as a day laborer, usually following the course of the Erie Canal. It was a difficult living with the prospects of raising and educating a family being sketchy at best. So when word of the discovery of gold in California reached the east coast, David Jackson turned his steps westward.

During the spring of 1850, the Jacksons sailed out of New York harbor, rounding the Horn, and arrived at San Francisco on June 23, 1850. After settling his family among the burgeoning African- American community in that city, David Jackson set out for the gold fields. His efforts met with moderate success so the family was able to establish itself comfortably and the boys were enrolled at the new all-black school conducted by the Reverend Jeremiah B. Sanderson in the basement of the St. Cyprian African Methodist Episcopalian Church.

Emma, with her husband away at the mines, found work as a seamstress and involved herself in church activities. Possessing a beautiful soprano voice, she became a soloist with the choir. In the late 1850s, she received word that her husband had been killed in a mining accident. A few years later, the widow remarried, taking as her second husband, Pleasant Hill, a resident of the Oakland area.

In their late teens, while still attending school, the boys were all apprenticed into a trade. O.T. was trained as a barber and went to work at a shop on Montgomery Street. After learning that the sizable African-American community in Watsonville was without the services of a barber, he moved south in the company of his two brothers. He set up his own shaving and hair dressing salon in the old Union Hotel building on Main Street and opened for business April 1, 1868. Soon his clientele was such that he found it necessary to take on the first of what would be three partners. His name was Alexander Wilkins and he had come to California from Jamaica via Portland, Oregon.

Wilkins was a wild young man with a fondness for drink and women. On the night of Sunday, September 25, 1869, this weakness would cost him his life. In the company of a fellow known only as "Indian George", he rode out to Whisky Hill (now Freedom) to attend a fandango at one of the brothels located there. At 2 a.m., after considerable drink and merriment, they mounted their horses and started back towards town. Just as the two reached the site of the old Catholic cemetery, they were attacked by a gang of bandidos. Wilkins was killed and George, who was seriously wounded, escaped and made his way back into Watsonville. When the town marshal and his posse arrived at the scene of the shooting, they found Wilkins' body had been robbed and stripped of most of it's clothing. The following day, O.T. Jackson buried his colleague.

His next two partners were William H. Miller, who after a few years with Jackson would move to Salinas and become a pioneer of that city; and Charles Bryant, a native of England, who had come to California during the gold rush.

Meanwhile the other Jackson brothers were branching out on their own. Adam, who was restless like his father, moved away from Watsonville and took up a mining claim in Calaveras County, near San Andreas. Jethro continued to live with Oscar and became the town bill-poster. In the spring of 1870, when the U.S. Congress passed the 15th amendment, the Jackson brothers were among the first blacks in Watsonville to register to vote.

On August 23, 1871, Oscar Jackson married Mary Ellen Wiley, the only daughter of California pioneer John Wiley-Scott, a veteran of John C. Fremont's exploration party in 1844. The couple had just settled into a quiet existence when O.T. made a discovery which was to radically alter the direction of their lives.

Living in Watsonville at the time was a man with a flair for the arts. His name was J. 0. Child and from time to time he would put on musicals for the enjoyment of the citizenry. Perhaps the most popular musical style of the period was the Minstrel show. Child hit upon the idea of organizing such a show in Watsonville using solely the talent to be found in the African-American community. When he approached the group with this idea, he was greeted with great enthusiasm.

The date of the concert was set for July 22, 1870 at Allen's Hall, and it was decided that all the proceeds from the event would be donated to the local colored school. Rehearsals began late in June, so the cast only had time for 12 lessons from Mr. Child to prepare them. The lead singers in the group were Oscar and Jethro Jackson. Prior to the production, complimentary tickets were sent to Charley Cummings, editor of the Watsonville Pajaronian. He responded by giving the event a great deal of publicity.

On the evening of the 22nd, the hall was filled to capacity and the event proved to be a resounding success both culturally and financially. Editor Cummings in his next issue of the Pajaronian warmly praised the company and singled out Oscar Jackson's performance, noting "the way he had rendered the ballads with a beautiful tenor voice." In private, he and other members of the community encouraged O.T. to turn professional. It was a suggestion not wasted on Jackson.

It was not long before the Jackson brothers and other members of the Black community had organized a group called the "Sable Minstrels" and were playing dates all over the central coasts. The company consisted of O.T. Jackson as a ballad singer; Charley King singing harmony; Louis Parris, who narrated the skits; Ben Johnson doing the plantation jig; and Jethro "Bones" Jackson as a song and dance man. The instrumental accompaniment was provided by Jose and Emidio Soria, members of the old Branciforte family. In time they honed their routine and took it up to San Francisco which was a center for touring minstrel troupes. Although their jaunt to the city met with only mild success, it did however bring the considerable talent of O.T. Jackson to the attention of big time promoters.

As he began to feel more and more that his future lay in music, Jackson realized that it would be best for his career to move back up to the San Francisco Bay area where the various cultural arts were flourishing. So in 1874, he and Mary Ellen bade farewell to his many friends in Santa Cruz County and bought a small house at 714 Pine Street in west Oakland. It was located close to his mother's home and that of his in-laws so that his wife would not be alone when he was on tour.

O.T. was quickly picked up by a series of West Coast Minstrel groups which kept him traveling up and down the state the next few years playing at small town fairs, circuses, and auditoriums. It was a period of apprenticeship during which three daughters were born into the Jackson family. Only one, Mayme - born May 26, 1876 - would survive to adulthood.

In 1877, Jackson broke into the "big time" when he joined the Haverly Colored Minstrel Troupe, the most important group of its kind in America. He was one of their lead tenors as they crisscrossed the nation following the theater circuit to all of the major cities.

Lured away by the promise of a larger salary, he signed on with Charley Hick's Georgia Minstrels and sailed off on the adventure of a lifetime. Hicks, a black performer and promoter, hailed the trip as "A Grand Tour of the Entire World", and it almost lived up to it's title. After a two month cruise which took them to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Tahiti, and other South Sea islands, they landed in Australia where they played the larger cities. This was followed by a slow journey through the bush country entertaining in countless churches, school houses and pubs.

After leaving Australia their itinerary took them to New Zealand, Java, China, Japan and across the continent to the European countries which housed the greatest concert halls of the world. The run ended with a triumphant year's tour in England which included a command performance before King Edward VII.

When they returned to the states in 1884, Jackson had been away from home for almost six years. He settled down for a time in the comforts of family and friends, enjoying the savings which he had been able to send back to Mary Ellen during his tours. The Jacksons made a brief trip back to Watsonville to renew acquaintances with his ex-neighbors.

But it was the heyday of black minstrelsy and it was Charlie Hicks who would tempt O.T. back on the road. Hick's, who was planning another tour of Australia and Europe, offered him $40 a week to travel with the show giving him the top billing as lead tenor. So for two years, between 1886 and 1888, Jackson retraced his earlier steps around the world. At the end of his second extended tour, he promised his family no more overseas travel and once again settled down.

However this "retirement" proved as temporary as the first because in 1890, he was off again. This time Lew Johnson, an old friend from the first tour, organized a series of minstrel troupes geared to play in the "secondary markets", that is the small western towns where none of the major touring companies ever appeared. These areas were starved for entertainment and would prove to be lucrative for the Johnson troupes.

Still receiving top billing, Jackson would play a series of one-night stands in almost every little town and village from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. There were frequent name changes for the troupe, including Lew Johnson's Refined Colored Minstrels and Electric Brass Band, and the Black Baby Boy Minstrels.

While they were in these rough frontier towns, the all-black troupe met with a tremendous amount of prejudice and discrimination. At times their mere survival was at risk because the modes of transportation were still quite crude, leaving them to travel on accident prone mountain railroads and hot, dusty, uncomfortable stage coaches. Good food was frequently scarce and accommodations were often primitive. In most towns they were forced into segregated quarters; when no commercial housing was available because of this discrimination, they found lodging with local black families in their already crowded shacks and shanties. Every small town had a building which was optimistically called their "opera house" or "theater" where, more often than not, the troupe would play to a near empty hall and it was not at all uncommon for an unscrupulous agent or advance man to abscond with the troupe's money.

On one occasion when Jackson was with a show in the cow country of west Texas a group of rowdies in the audience bated the performers with a series of racist slogans. One proud member of the cast made the mistake of returning the gibes. A mob of angry whites dragged the player from the stage and out into the night. The next morning as the troupe was preparing to board their coach at the train station, the unfortunate man staggered up to the platform with his back whipped raw and covered with tar and feathers.

In spite of all of this discomfort and suffering, the Johnson Minstrels and O.T. Jackson prospered. For Jackson and most of the other black performers on the minstrel circuit, the opportunity to "be somebody" through the use of their own natural talents made the extra risks worthwhile.

The fall of 1897, found O.T. and his group, now called the Original Nashville Students, touring California. On November 12 and 13, when they played dates in Watsonville and Santa Cruz it was like a homecoming for Jackson. In attendance were many of his friends from the old days when, twenty years earlier, he had operated the small barber shop on Main Street. The flow of money back home to Mary Ellen and the girls continued until 1898, when O.T., now well into the 5th decade of his life and tired of the road, gave up minstrelsy, and settled down in Oakland for the final time.

He returned to his former occupation of barbering and was hired at the salon on Railroad Avenue. The wall behind his chair was lined with press clippings, notices, and handbills from his years on the circuit. The old man never tired of walking with a "stage swagger" and delighted his customers with tales of the far away exotic places which he had visited. The high point of a trip to O.T.s barber chair was the colorful way which he boasted of the time that he had played before the British Royal Family. In Oakland he was always in demand as a soloist at weddings, funerals, and other occasions. To the very end his beautiful tenor voice remained mellow and melodious. He died quietly at his home on November 25, 1909 at the age of 63 years.

In the course of his lifetime, this son of slaves had risen to some dazzling heights through the use of his unique talent. He could claim kinship to all of the now famous names in the history of minstrelsy including W.C. Handy, Edwin Christy, Billy Kersands, and Wallace King. Along the way, Jackson had managed to cross paths with the likes of Tin Pan Alley composer Gussie L. Davis and a young Bessie Smith. These gifted performers would help Blacks establish themselves in the mainstream of American show business.

Almost a century later, Professor Douglas H. Daniels wrote a book entitled Pioneer Urbanites, A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco. (Temple University Press, 1980) In it, Professor Daniels includes one chapter on the arts. In the section on music, he suggests that Oscar T. Jackson and his improvisational vocal technique deserve some of the credit for establishing "Afro- American elements" in the music styles of the west during the 19th century. This musical format would ultimately lead to the creation of Jazz, the Blues, and other Negro contributions to American cultural art forms.

Copyright 1996 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of the author. Photograph courtesy of the Northern California Center for Afro American History and Life.

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African Americans, musicians, Watsonville


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