Her Legacy - I Stand on the Shoulders of Lottie Wilson JacksonMay 13, 2021 08:33PM ● By Sophia Ward Brewer
Article by: Sophia Ward Brewer for the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council • Illustration by Kim Nguyen. Header illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.
Lottie Wilson Jackson spent her life honoring women models, like 18th-century writer Phyllis Wheatley. Lottie served on the Phyllis Wheatley Home Association Board, travelling to initiate Phyllis Wheatley women’s clubs all over, including in Grand Rapids. As we continue to celebrate the centennial year of the 19th Amendment and as we approach a historic election, let’s add names and faces to the shoulders we stand upon. Let’s remember the countless women who have been fighting for women and civil rights since the beginning of time. They were pioneers, suffragists, marchers, politicians, protesters, doctors, lawyers and nurses. They were mothers, daughters, sisters and wives. We honor women like Lottie Wilson Jackson for their perseverance, persistence, resiliency and strength. For theirs are the shoulders we stand on.
As an African American woman thinking about voting, public service and traveling, I stand on the shoulders of national figures like Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks, but I also stand on the shoulders of Michigan’s Lottie Wilson Jackson. You might never have heard of this suffragist, artist and activist, but Lottie Wilson Jackson travelled the country promoting her art work and fighting for women’s and civil rights until her death in 1914. She also took a famous stand in 1899 in Grand Rapids.
Born in Niles, Michigan as Charlotte Wilson, Lottie was just under 10 years old when on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the freedom of all persons held as slaves in America. She was reared in the North, but imagine the excitement of this young child at the thought of being able to move about this great country in freedom. As an adult, however, Lottie saw her dreams deferred because she was an African American woman.
Lottie Wilson Jackson fully understood the burden she carried as a woman of color. In the late spring of 1899, in fact, she spoke up at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Grand Rapids about the separate coach laws being reintroduced into the South, where NAWSA had begun to travel. She proposed the following resolution, “that colored women ought not to be compelled to ride in smoking cars, and that suitable accommodations should be provided for them.” The resolution was tabled by Susan B. Anthony herself, essentially stating that women were still “helpless and disenfranchised” and could do nothing to help women of color with this issue.
Naturally, she was disappointed by the tabled resolution; and before Lottie left Grand Rapids in May of 1899, she spoke at the home of Emma Ford to the Married Ladies Nineteenth-Century Club, the oldest of the local African American women’s clubs. Then she sought further support from women and people of color by travelling the country and addressing colored audiences about the rights and specific treatment of African American women. In August of 1899, Lottie attended the three-year-old National Association of Colored Women’s convention in Chicago, where she reported on the failed resolution proposed at the national suffrage meeting a few months earlier. Minutes of the Chicago meeting record that a resolution regarding the separate coach law was endorsed and heartily supported by its members including Mary Church Terrell, the national association’s president at the time.
Lottie Wilson Jackson was also a notable artist. Having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1897 she opened an art studio in Bay City, Michigan, and became widely known for her portraits of historical subjects and notable Americans like Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglass, and his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass. Wilson’s most famous painting was created after her move to Washington, D.C. in 1901, when she used a photograph to repaint the famous portrait of Sojourner Truth with President Abraham Lincoln, after the original had been destroyed by fire. In 1902, Wilson met President Theodore Roosevelt when she presented him with a historic memento that the “colored people of Baltimore” had given to Abraham Lincoln at his second inaugural.