NILES, Mich. (WOOD) — If you find yourself at Silverbrook Cemetery in Niles, you might not even notice Lottie Wilson Jackson’s gravesite.
Her faded name on her headstone serves as a reminder of the century that’s past since her death and a symbol of a legacy not widely chronicled in history lessons.
Charlotte, her birth name, was born in 1854. She first began shattering glass ceilings as a young, talented artist and the first Black woman to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at just 17 years old.
“In order to really appreciate Lottie Wilson Jackson, we really have to put the context into the time period in which she lived,” Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council Co-President Sophia Ward Brewer explained to News 8. “By the time she became an adult at 17, slavery had just ended.”
Ward Brewer shared insight on Wilson Jackson as part of News 8’s Black History Month stories.
“She was prominent in white circles as far as her art was concerned. She was an incredible artist by all accounts, and so she definitely used that notoriety,” Ward Brewer explained.
It would take several years, but her talent took the Niles native and put her on a national stage. She became a delegate for several national suffrage and civil rights associations.
Balancing those responsibilities with a blooming art career meant a lot of traveling across the country in the late 1800s.
“If there wasn’t room, she was subjected to traveling in trains with cattle or traveling in trains with equipment, and so she started to really voice her opinion and really try to advocate for women, especially African American women, to have better traveling conditions,” Ward Brewer said. “(I’ve) found articles where she was presenting her art in Tennessee. Again, thinking about the time period: This is now after slavery, but also after the Reconstruction era, so we’re smack dab at the beginning of Jim Crow America.”
Wilson Jackson’s experience led to asking for change at the 1899 National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention at St. Ceclia’s in Grand Rapids, which was reenacted 20 years ago by the history council and can be found on YouTube.
The artist and activist wanted fair treatment on trains, not discrimination based on skin color.
“They absolutely refused to hear her resolution,” Ward Brewer said. “There was lots of discussion about it but, the problem was that NAWSA needed the support of southern women.”
She didn’t let that deter her though and went back to traveling in prejudicial conditions to obtain support from prominent minority organizations before re-introducing her resolution.
In 1901, Wilson Jackson chaired an exhibition featuring Black artists at the Pan-American Exposition.
Perhaps her most-recognizable achievement came not long after.
Her 1902 replica of a painting depicting President Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth was accepted as part of the White House Collection by President Theodore Roosevelt, making Wilson Jackson the first Black artist to achieve such an honor.
“There’s so many shoulders that we stand on that are unknown or very little known about them and I think Lottie Wilson Jackson is one of those people,” Ward Brewer added.
The trailblazer died Jan. 6, 1914 and was buried by her family in Niles.
**Correction: A previous version of this article stated the St. Ceclia’s reenactment was two years ago. That should have read 20 years ago. We regret the error, which has been corrected.
News 8 would like to thank Ward Brewer and the Niles History Center. Their work researching and documenting Wilson Jackson’s life made this story possible.