Calobe Jackson nimbly treads a narrow path behind his childhood home. He plants a hand on a low concrete wall.
“My dad had this wall put in, probably around 1937 or 1938,” he said.
Jackson’s memories are modest. Sweeping barbershop floors. Pears growing on backyard trees. But when Harrisburg’s history-keepers talk about Jackson, they pull out the superlatives. “Living treasure.” “Walking encyclopedia.” “Historian’s historian.”
Calobe Jackson, Jr., turned 90 in April. With his steel-trap memory and will-do attitude, he has spent decades in community service. His contributions have broadened the scope of Harrisburg’s past, even as he steps into the future as a muse for revitalization of a key piece of African-American entrepreneurial history.
Stories They Told
In 1934, World War I veteran Calobe Jackson, Sr., relocated his barbershop and his family, including 4-year-old Calobe, Jr., from Strawberry Alley to N. 6th Street.
In a mixed-race neighborhood, “Jack’s Barbershop” joined a thriving African-American business scene. German Jackson (no relation) ran the Green Book-listed Jackson House rooming house and restaurant next door. A beauty school was on the other side. At the funeral home on the corner, morticians would embalm bodies in the basement and carry them upstairs via a stairwell leading to the sidewalk.
These are the stories Jackson shares as he walks around his old neighborhood.
“You had the major African-American businesses right together, and that is very symbolic,” he said. “They were prosperous during segregation, and they’re still the most popular businesses. Most African Americans go to the African-American barbers or beauticians, the undertakers and the restaurants.”
As young Calobe worked around the barbershop, he heard the tales of old-time Harrisburg from the doctors, lawyers and politicians in the chairs.
“I was fascinated by the stories they told,” he said.
He especially loved stories of the Old 8th Ward, where a thriving, diverse neighborhood had given way to expansion of the Capitol grounds.
His step-grandfather would take Calobe to Negro League baseball games.
“All these great stars—(Josh) Gibson and (Satchel) Paige,” he said. “I saw them play.”
Jackson graduated from William Penn High School, where he ran track. He attended Lincoln University until being drafted into the Army, where his proclivity for math landed him a spot as a surveyor. His unit—possibly one of the last all-black units before President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces—stayed stateside during the Korean War.
After military service, Jackson worked his way up to post office superintendent, a problem-solving role that energized his puzzle-loving brain. He married Betty Canady in 1957. They raised two sons and a daughter. Betty died in 1976.
Jackson served on the Harrisburg school district’s elected school board and appointed board of control. He never feared the future, from childhood days building crystal radios to his years leading establishment of the school district’s Marshall Math Science Academy and the Harrisburg High School SciTech Campus. From 2005 to 2010, he served on the board of the fledgling Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.
“Harrisburg University has some very innovative courses,” Jackson said. “These things they’re into with the (esports) gaming—that’s part of the future.”
After retiring in 1990, Jackson started tracking down details on all the stories he had heard over the years. He and fellow historians bonded over their hours spent in the Pennsylvania State Library’s microfilm section.
He has contributed memories and meticulous research to a long string of projects—creating African-American history trails, commemorating U.S. Colored Troops, celebrating Harrisburg’s sesquicentennial, preserving cemeteries, exploring jazz and the Negro Leagues, researching Old 8th Ward residents for the Commonwealth Monument Project.
Ken Frew, librarian for the Historical Society of Dauphin County, remembers when Jackson asked for an obituary that wasn’t in the society’s files. Visiting the State Library the next day, Frew asked for two rolls of microfilm that might yield the obit, but they were loaned out. Frew went into the microfilm room, “and there’s Calobe with the two rolls.”
“When he has a lead on something, he follows through on it,” Frew said.
With Jackson’s contributions of informational gems from his own collection, Frew expanded the Historical Society’s file of African-American history from a small file to one now outgrowing a drawer.
Fellow historians marvel at Jackson’s accuracy and his generosity in sharing his knowledge.
“He’s sort of like a living Wikipedia,” said Historic Harrisburg Association Executive Director David Morrison.
HHA’s 2020 Preservation Celebration—postponed to Sept. 20 because of the pandemic—features “A Toast to Calobe Jackson.”
For HHA, Jackson worked with historian Jeb Stuart to create an African-American history route for the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg’s Race Against Racism. He also helped HHA intern Kristian Carter write about African-American businesses and, said Morrison, “the subtle segregation in that these black-owned businesses existed and thrived because people couldn’t go downtown and shop.”
“He was one of several people, and certainly the dean of African-American historians, who have helped to integrate African-American history into general history, locally and beyond,” said Morrison.
Jackson’s accuracy derives from his talent for matching memories “with actual documentation,” said Stuart. “He’s unbelievable. He’s sharp.”
Jackson provides context that makes pictures emerge from the scattered puzzle pieces of history, said arts activist Lenwood Sloan—even if it means, as in one case, sharing a racist account of a visit by 19th-century abolitionist and journalist Martin Delaney.
“You’re creating fact-based history and not legend and mythology,” Sloan said. “Memory tends to gild things. Some of the things that Calobe turns up are not that pretty.”
Post-World War II, most of the 6th Street African-American business corridor gave way to Capitol Complex expansion and urban renewal. One stretch survived—the historic buildings of Jackson House, Jack’s Barbershop and the corner funeral home that was originally the Ridge Avenue UMC parsonage, later known as the Swallow Mansion.
“They’re the only thing left from that time,” said Jackson.
Through late historian Hari Jones, Jackson connected with Ryan Sanders, a partner in Vice Capital with NFL veterans LeRon and LeSean McCoy. The team is revitalizing Jackson House and the former funeral home to create Jackson Square, transforming the dilapidated buildings into apartments and retail.
Jackson’s firsthand knowledge of the site helped forge a narrative of African-American entrepreneurship and its role in overall Harrisburg history, said Sanders.
“He is absolutely a pillar of this project,” he said. “Accuracy is very, very important here. As we’re telling the narrative and the storyline, we’re setting the groundwork for future endeavors on this property.”
Jackson’s memories helped give momentum to reinvigorating “an important anchor to the community,” added LeRon McCoy. “Hearing those original stories and what these buildings meant, it only cemented the idea that we wanted to rebuild them.”
As the new federal courthouse drives revitalization of N. 6th Street, noted Morrison, Jackson is enhancing the effort by helping restore the corridor as “a special boulevard of African-American heritage.”
Keeps Him Young
In every conversation about Calobe Jackson, someone references the man himself.
“He’s one of my favorite historians,” said Frew. “One of my favorite people, even if he wasn’t a historian. He’s just a good guy.”
“He’s just a heck of a nice guy,” seconded Morrison
Added Sloan: “He is a gentle man and a gentleman.”
But make no mistake, Sloan said. Jackson’s work counterbalances Harrisburg’s culture of “perpetually emerging” but largely peripatetic African-American organizations that have no place to call home—no black bookstore or art gallery or theater group with a sign out front and its own door to walk through, Sloan said. In a heritage marked by displacement, people such as Jackson are “temples of memory” pointing toward permanence.
“If it wasn’t for people like Calobe who remind us that we were here and that we thrived and survived for a time, we would be forgotten, or worse than forgotten, discounted,” Sloan said. “Calobe reminds us that we count.”
Jackson says simply that his work keeps him young.
“It keeps your mind flowing,” he said. “I’m in good health to be 90. A couple of ailments like some people get. The way my mind works, the idea of having this thirst for history, this thirst for knowledge, keeps you going.”
Historic Harrisburg Association’s 2020 Preservation Celebration, including “A Toast to Calobe Jackson,” is slated for Sept. 20 at the HHA Resource Center, 1230 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For information, visit www.historicharrisburg.org.