The Wild, Wild West . . . of Pennsylvania Avenue

We are wrapping up our celebration of Black History Month. Today’s post comes from Hailey Philbin.

On a sunny day in 1944, young Sara Jackson walked along the noisy DC streets right into the National Archives and asked for a job.

Sara Dunlap Jackson receiving the Houston Civil War Round Table’s Frank E. Vandiver Award, 1990. (National Archives History Office Collection)

It wasn’t very often that someone walked in from the street asking for a job at the National Archives. It was even less often, and practically unknown, for a Black woman to do that.

Sara Dunlap Jackson graduated with a degree in sociology from John C. Smith College in 1943. Although her goal had initially been to become a social worker, her first college-graduate job was teaching the fourth grade.

At the outset of World War II, Jackson moved to Washington, DC, to be a clerk in the War Department. Here she began collecting her massive knowledge of military records that would someday be her most sought-after attribute.

While walking past the National Archives building after an interview with the Library of Congress, Jackson thought she’d “try it out.” Initially, she was told she was qualified for a job and had the proper education, but not the experience. Eventually, she would be told that she was plenty qualified, had enough experience, but not enough education.

Despite the low expectations fueled by prejudice and sexism, Jackson worked diligently in the Military Archives Division. Her military record knowledge accumulated from her work in the War Department granted her the unofficial title of “the employee that knows the most about military records in the office.”

Presentation of certificates to staff by the American Polish Civil War Centennial Committee (Sara Jackson, Elmer Parker, Henry Archaki, Victor Gondos, and Sherrod East), 12/29/1964. (National Archives Identifier 12171118)

Her favorite Record Group was RG 393, which contains commands for building roads in the Wild West, handling the rocky terrain and foreign geography of the area, and how to deal with the occasional Native American. Jackson was not afraid of unexplored territory and new opportunities like in the Old West. In fact, she encouraged them in her own adventurous and revolutionary life.

While still in the Military Archives Division, she co-authored the preliminary inventory for the Freedman’s Bureau Records and made numerous other contributions to Southern, Western, military and African American history.

Jackson moved to the National Historic Publications Commission in 1969, where projects about Jefferson Davis, Booker T. Washington, and Fredrick Douglass garnered her loyal attention when her busy schedule permitted.

Association of American Foreign Service Women touring the National Archives, from right to left Barbara McDonald, Adele Langston Rogers, Dan Reed, and Sara Jackson, February 13, 1973. (Records of the National Archives)

In 1976, Jackson received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Toledo. She dedicated  much of her time to helping students and scholars research archives, and went above and beyond in her dedication to their success.

In addition, Sara trained several employees of new Presidential libraries. She shared her decades of archival wisdom as she guided new employees through the many research methods.

Behind all of Jackson’s success and loyalty, an unavoidable and constant cloud of racial and sexual discrimination choked her progress in the National Archives. Jackson often felt that lack of respect prohibited her from achieving the promotions and authority she might have earned had she not been black and a woman.

Sara Jackson at a reception to commemorate the 40th anniversary of NHPC and the 250th anniversary of Henry Laurens’s birth, February 25, 1974. (Records of the National Archives)

At times, she thought the Archives might have been embarrassed to have her floating around the stacks. She felt no one on the inside was on her side. Not even history was on her side, but that didn’t stop Jackson. She encouraged adventure.

Jackson was a brilliant detective who could solve the mysteries of our past. Her service in the National Archives lasted from 1944 to 1990 and was one of the agency’s longest serving employees.

Jackson saw the long-awaited end of World War II, cheered on the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, heard the words of Martin Luther King’s dream, and witnessed the emotional Vietnam protests.

She lived through the history she preserved all while writing her own story.

Sara Dunlap Jackson admired the courageous stories of cowboys and Indians in the Wild West. The tales of glorified adventure and unknown obstacles inspired her to be the cowgirl of her own narrative. Jackson’s life and dedication to the National Archives marks her adventure on the uncharted territory of racial and gender equality.

Read more about Sara Jackson in the Pieces of History article, “Sarah Dunlap Jackson: Archivist Extraordinaire.”

Jackson’s recollections are from a recorded oral history interview on July 5, 1982, with Rod Ross at her home in Washington, DC.

3 thoughts on “The Wild, Wild West . . . of Pennsylvania Avenue

  1. Thank you for sharing Ms. Jackson’s story, as well as where to find out more about her. These stories are important for all NARA staff members to know about.

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