WASHINGTON – One might plausibly argue that Dr. Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown University history professor and longtime Washington, D.C., resident, has been destined to write a detailed history on African-Americans in the nation’s capital.
It turns out the former community activist and organizer who toiled for more than a decade in the city’s Black low-income and working class neighborhoods before becoming a professor has been diligently at work on “Halfway to Freedom: A History of the African-American Peoples in Washington, D.C.,” a book Jackson expects will fill a major void in scholarship on D.C. history.
What’s been less predictable for Jackson is that his visibility as a local scholar speaking publicly and writing about African-Americans in Washington has led to an unexpected opportunity. In July, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray appointed Jackson to chair the city’s first-ever District of Columbia Commission on African American Affairs.
The 16-member commission was formally established last month as a volunteer advisory group to advise the mayor, city council and the public about the economic, educational and health needs of African-American communities. City leaders’ concern over the decline of D.C.’s Black population led the city council and the mayor to approve legislation in 2011 and 2012 for establishing the commission.
With Washington having been a majority Black city for many years, the idea for the commission took off following the 2010 U.S. Census, which showed the Black population declining by 39,000 to 50.7 percent of the city, according to Jackson. In 2011, D.C.’s Black population fell under 50 percent for the first time after more than five decades, according to an estimate by Brookings Institution senior demographer William Frey.
In 2012, however, the U.S. Census reported that Blacks made up 50.1 percent of the city’s 632,323 residents.
“Why can’t African-Americans live here? African-Americans would like to live in the city like everyone else but it is so hard to afford it,” Jackson recently told Diverse.
“Why is it that we see buildings popping up all over the place but we don’t see affordable housing? As African-American families move out, other African-American families cannot afford to move in,” he noted.
Jackson said part of the commission’s mandate is to examine conditions for low-income and working class African-American families. The commission will investigate and provide advice for addressing educational inequality, economic opportunities, affordable housing and health disparities affecting African-Americans in D.C.
“If we can do anything to try to raise awareness, to write some reports about it and document the conditions, we should provide compelling answers,” he said.
While Jackson has had informal conversations with other commission members, he said he will convene the group’s first meeting in September at a location on the Georgetown University campus.
“The university has expressed its support of my appointment to the chair,” he noted.
Darryl Gorman, the D.C. Office of Boards and Commissions director, said the mayor sought out commission members who could represent a diverse array of interests and experiences, including individuals from local religious, educational and cultural institutions.
“It was important to have a scholar leading the commission because I think there are some important issues that are timely which will require rigorous and thorough analysis,” Gorman said, noting that the mayor grew interested in Jackson’s work after hearing the scholar speak publicly about the plight of Black Washingtonians.
“[Jackson’s] perspective is going to be extremely useful for this commission,” Gorman said.
Jackson said the idea to write a book about Black Washington came to him not long after the publication of his book, “Let This Voice be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism,” in 2009, and a second one he co-edited, titled “African-Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents,” which published in January 2010.
After finishing the two projects, Jackson said, “I saw that there was really not one good comprehensive history on Black people in Washington.”
He added that his forthcoming book will document two centuries of Black D.C. history.
A native of Newport News, Va., Jackson, who earned an undergraduate degree from Antioch College, moved to Washington in the early 1970s. He spent much of the 1970s and the 1980s balancing work in construction and shipbuilding with community organizing and political activism. In the 1990s, Jackson, then a married father of two, opted for graduate school. He earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in history in 1995 and 2001, respectively, from Georgetown.
Currently an associate professor of history and African-American Studies, Jackson is also an affiliated professor of performing arts at Georgetown. His research interests include 18th century intellectual history, African-American history, the Atlantic region anti-slavery movement and the Atlantic region revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Dr. Clarence Lusane, a professor in the American University School of International Service, is a longtime Jackson friend and fellow commission member. The American University political scientist, who shares a similar D.C. activist-turned-scholar background with Jackson, says it should be challenging meeting “a really broad mandate … on issues directly related to lower income African-Americans in the city, particularly around issues of education, employment [and] health care.”
Lusane noted that Jackson has also discussed adding criminal justice issues to the list of concerns the commission will explore.
“These issues have not gotten the focus and policy attention from the city, in my opinion, that they need,” said Lusane. “It’s a broad mandate right now and what we have to do as a commission is to put some meat on the bones and then figure out what will be our strategy over the next couple of years in terms of advising the city.”
Note: Jackson appears in the “Meet Me at Equality: The People’s March on Washington” documentary airing on PBS stations this week. Stations showing the documentary this weekend are WHUT-Washington, D.C. on Saturday, August 31, at 10:00 pm; WSKC-Binghamton, N.Y. on Friday, August 30, at 10 pm; and Houston PBS Channel 8 on Saturday, August 31, at 11 pm.