Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a national movement and remains a catalyst for peaceful change after he was martyred for the cause. He was hardly beloved by all: many felt threatened by him, and when he protested against the war in Vietnam, many criticized him for losing focus and supposedly deserting the primary goal of addressing racial inequality.
Millions supported his efforts, but it was a chaotic time, filled with uncertainty about the future. With the bitterness, hatred, and violence that was revealed, even on the nightly TV news, it sometimes seemed doubtful that true change could ever be achieved.
But Dr. King wasn’t alone as a leader. Others took up the mantle at all levels of society, and when someone did in Clinton County, I found renewed hope that substantive change could be achieved.
It happened in the person of Jacqueline Creed Archer, who moved to the North Country in the early 1960s and settled in Beekmantown with her husband and two daughters. The percentage of African Americans in the county’s population at the time was in the low single digits, and the vast majority of them lived in Plattsburgh. The reason they lived there was simple: they were almost all in the military, assigned to serve at Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
The public was not allowed on the base, and since the county’s population was mostly rural, there were few opportunities to mingle. Into that scenario stepped Jackie Archer, a woman from New Jersey who saw the friendlier northern location as more conducive to raising her girls than the south, where she had seen and experienced institutionalized racism first-hand.
For me, Jackie was a pioneer, a word I associate with brave, involved, resolute, and groundbreaking. But was she, really? Looking at her life in retrospect involved gleaning large and small bits of information from many sources. Wondering if her background was an accomplished one, and possibly indicative of her future, I came away very impressed. Perhaps a book could be written about her, but here I’ll cover only the barest of outlines until we arrive at the real meat of her story.
She was born in 1928 and raised in Keyport, New Jersey, an oceanfront community on Raritan Bay. As it turns out, Keyport was (and still is) predominantly white. When Jackie lived there, the black population percentage was about the same as in Clinton County when she moved there more than 30 years later, but 92 percent of the African Americans were clustered in a three-block area. Racism was evident in Keyport, not as overtly as in the south, but in certain public policies, like allowing people of color to use the public beaches only on Thursdays, and requiring they take balcony seats in theaters, leaving choice locations to caucasians.
Being one of the few African Americans in a mostly white town, where you were expected to “know your place,” might induce anyone to be shy or withdrawn. That wasn’t Jacqueline Archer. She was an excellent student, and by age 12 had joined Keyport’s Junior Auxiliary of the American Legion, becoming the group’s historian a year later. Also at age 12, at the Keyport Grammar School commencement, she was a toastmistress, a glee-club leader, and an honor-roll pupil. In 1942, at age 13, she joined the Junior Red Cross, and at times headed the social committee. At some meetings during the Second World War, members knitted sweaters, scarves, and other items for children and soldiers. During those war years, she remained a very active member of both the Legion and the Red Cross.
Her career at Keyport High School was noteworthy. She played basketball, field hockey, softball, and was a member of the tumbling team; she was the school’s first African American cheerleader and co-captained the varsity cheerleading club; she was director of the Girls’ Athletic Club; and she graduated in 1945. In 1998, when Keyport High was honoring pre-1975 alumni, Jackie was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame for her stellar school career and outstanding public life.
After leaving high school, she worked for a year in Boston, where her father had long been employed as the head waiter at the luxurious Hotel Vendome. Then it was off to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia where she played basketball, belonged to the University Players theater group, was a cheerleader, majored in social science, minored in history and psychology, and in 1950 became Keyport’s first African-American college graduate.
Spelman College was where she met Martin Luther King Jr. and became friends with his sister, Christine. (Students at Spelman, an all-girls school, often socialized with students from adjacent Morehouse, the all-boys school attended by King.)
Her time in Georgia also provided something much less desirable: an introduction to southern racism. As routine penalties for her skin color, Jackie told Press-Republican correspondent Michael Marois 40 years later, “I had to sit in the back of the bus. I went into stores where I couldn’t try on clothes. I had to drink from colored drinking fountains, and I had to use the back door of restaurants to get my food. My eyes were so opened, I became dedicated to breaking down racial barriers.”
Some of the humiliating eye-openers occurred on the trip south from New Jersey, before she even arrived at school. When the train reached Washington, she was moved to a seating section reserved for people of color, and when it came time to eat, she was relegated to the dining car’s “colored” section. “That’s when I really saw what racism was like,” she remembered. “They couldn’t have known it, but they were preparing me to fight because I could see how ridiculous the whole system was.”
While back home in New Jersey in the summer of 1951, Jackie enjoyed an unusual, brief, and positive moment in the spotlight, courtesy of a promising technology. She appeared on the CBS television show Star of the Family, where contestants tried to guess the identity of a “regular” person’s famous relative (it was her mother’s sister, Juanita Hall, a star in the original cast of South Pacific).
After college, the next four years were busy ones on several fronts. She was very active back home in the county cotillion, and as president in 1954 crowned Miss Monmouth County. As a groundbreaking social worker in her home area, she was the first African American tending to both white and black families. At Keyport Library Literary Club meetings, she performed piano-accompanied readings. She was also a founding member and president of the Monmouth County Business and Professional Women’s Council.
Jackie married Lloyd Archer in 1955 and moved to Jamaica, Long Island, where their two daughters, Taryn and Tracy, were born. She was a home-service worker there for the American Red Cross and chaired a fundraising project for a club Lloyd belonged to. But deciding that a city atmosphere wasn’t best for raising children, the Archers moved to northern New York in fall 1962, settling on the Ashley Road in Beekmantown.
The civil rights movement was gathering momentum, and mindful of her disturbing experiences with racism in the south, in the fall of 1963 Jackie and her husband joined the Plattsburgh Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which had formed in 1961.
Next week, part two: exposing local discrimination, and bringing about change.
Photos: Jackie Archer (courtesy of her daughters, Taryn Archer and Tracey Lawson); map of Keyport showing the borough (town) perimeter and the small section (lined in white) where most of the blacks lived