Alexander Louis Jackson II was born on March 1, 1891, in Englewood, New Jersey. He attended Phillips Andover Academy and was elected to be the commencement speaker for his class of 1910. Jackson graduated from Harvard University in 1914 with degrees in English, sociology, and education. After graduation, he served as the secretary and then director for the Wabash branch of the Chicago, Illinois YMCA.
In 1915 Jackson met with Carter Woodson, a fellow Harvard alumnus, and helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The association researched black history and started its own publication, The Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History). Jackson and the other organizers and historians of the association wanted to document the achievements of African Americans and disprove the widely held idea that black people were not contributors to history or civilization. Woodson later founded Negro History Week in 1926, which became Black History Month.
Jackson was also a major figure in the early twentieth century black Chicago community. The Wabash YMCA served as a “welcome center” for newcomers to Chicago’s black neighborhoods during the Great Migration. Though Jackson was part of the established black community of Chicago, he frequently urged elites to accept the new migrants from the South. Jackson even addressed the City Club of Chicago, a mostly white gathering of Chicago’s political and economic elite on the reasons for the black migration to their city and how racial conflict could be prevented.
In 1917, Jackson was instrumental in opening the Chicago chapter of the National Urban League, which helped new arrivals to Chicago find jobs during the labor shortage incurred by World War I. After the end of the war, Jackson also worked with the leading industrialists of Chicago to convince them to hire African American veterans or keep the black employees they had hired during the conflict. During the Chicago Riot of 1919, when the south side of Chicago was effectively cut off from resources by police and white rioters, Jackson worked with meat-packing companies, major employers in Chicago, to set up emergency pay stations at the Wabash YMCA for black workers.
In the fall of 1919, he resigned from his position at the Chicago YMCA to become the educational secretary of the National Urban League at its headquarters in New York, New York. By 1925, he had returned to Chicago and was serving as the general manager of the Chicago Defender, Chicago’s largest black newspaper. Jackson eventually started a career in real estate but remained active in South Side civil rights organizations until his death in 1973. A.L. Jackson’s papers and writings can be found at Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center.