Reviving a name in civil rights legend

Backers hope reopening museum will stir interest in Lillie Carroll Jackson

May 26, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Lillie May Carroll Jackson, a now-forgotten spitfire of a woman who led the Baltimore NAACP for more than three decades, might soon become a renewed inspiration for the city.

A group is trying to resurrect her name and reopen her West Baltimore home, once Maryland's only civil rights museum, which was closed nearly 15 years ago when its walls began to peel and its ceiling nearly collapsed.

Some of her descendants -- the politically active Mitchell clan -- and others involved gathered at her home yesterday to honor her and formally launch an effort to raise the $1 million needed to reopen the museum, at 1320 Eutaw Place.

"It saddens me how few people know the name Lillie Carroll Jackson," said Louis Fields, president of Black Baltimore Heritage Tours, who brought the group to her home yesterday. "As a community, we have to raise awareness and appreciation for our heroes."

Jackson, who would have turned 113 yesterday, died in 1975 after a life of fighting for women's and civil rights.

Under her leadership, membership in the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rose from fewer than 200 in 1935, when she became president, to more than 25,000 in 1946. She remained president until 1970.

Few people know of her accomplishments and pedigree: She was a major force behind the integration of Baltimore's schools, universities, department stores and the Police Department. She also was a descendant of an African chief, as well a great-granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Her tenacity led her to inspire many people who called her a mentor, including late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall; Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., civil rights leader and namesake of the Circuit Courthouse; and Carl Murphy, and publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American.

Jackson's three-story rowhouse opened as a museum two years after she died. The house is filled with pictures of Jackson and her family, as well as well-known figures who came to Baltimore to visit her, such as Rosa Parks and Sammy Davis Jr.

Morgan State University bought the house in 1994, and has been trying to reopen it.

"We've tried several times," said Gabriel Tenabe, director of the office of museums for Morgan State.

Jackson, who owned several properties, was not allowed to buy them as a black woman in the early 1900s. She would circumvent the laws by asking white men to buy properties in their names and transfer the deeds to her.

She bought the house at 1320 Eutaw Place because she loved it almost her whole life, said her grandson Michael Bowen Mitchell Sr., a former state senator and city councilman.

"My grandmother used to walk through the alleys to deliver laundry to that house as a little girl," he said.

Jackson, who was born in 1889, attended public schools in Baltimore and graduated from the Colored High & Training School (now Coppin State College) in 1908. She became a second-grade teacher and married Keiffer Albert Jackson.

They had four children, including two girls, Juanita and Virginia, who were refused admittance to the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Maryland because they were black. Jackson sent them to universities in Philadelphia. Virginia became a famous artist; Juanita became Maryland's first female lawyer and a leader of the battle for civil rights in the courtroom.

Several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren have held elective office, including city Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who stopped by the house yesterday.

They said Jackson got a fire in her belly in her 20s after a botched surgery to repair nerve tissue left her face contorted. She asked God to help her speak again, and promised in return that she would dedicate her life to helping people, said Michael Mitchell, her grandson.

He remembered her saying: "If God opened my mouth, can't no woman or man shut it while I'm fighting for my people."

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