At Plattsburgh’s Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration in 1990, Chairperson Vivian Papson shared a personal recollection of Jackie Archer with the Press-Republican’s Anne Smith:
“The first time I made contact with Jackie was in 1987. My introduction to her was a firm yet musical voice on the phone saying, ‘I’m Jacqueline Archer. I live in Plattsburgh and I think that this community needs to have a way to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday. I would like to organize a commemorative gathering; would you be interested in working with me?’ Everyone is very proud of Jackie. She is confined to a wheelchair but has tremendous spirit and interest in the community. She is unbelievably active.”
She also remained watchful and near year’s end, Jackie once again felt the call to action, after reading in the Press-Republican an opinion piece titled, “Regents policy ineffectual, racist.” The author was a history teacher at Peru Central School and president of the Plattsburgh City School Board. Among his comments were:
“Keep in mind that many minority groups were not and are not as important to the development of the U.S. as ‘white mainstream culture’ or the overall positive impact of Western Civilization and values…. Multiculturalists blame the failure of many minority students to succeed academically on racism in school curriculums. This idea is a lie perpetrated to ensure that the majority will feel guilty about the plight of minorities. Other recent events highlight this racism scam…. If some minorities do not succeed as a group in school as well as other groups, this reflects the overall value that subculture places on schooling.”
Jackie was one of many who publicly took issue with those comments, which were at best insensitive, but certainly seemed overtly racist. After working with others to formulate a response, she addressed the Peru school board, charging that silence on their part was tantamount to approval of the piece. But the board would go no further than stating they were proud of having the area’s largest minority population (Peru’s district included Plattsburgh Air Force Base) and strove to ensure there was no racism in the school.
In today’s atmosphere, the writer’s comments would likely generate much more outrage. But it was a different time, and 28 years later, that person remains a member of the Plattsburgh City School Board.
In anticipation of Black History Month 1991, Jackie led the MLK Jr. Celebration Committee in writing letters to local schools, offering educational programs. It was disappointing that only four accepted their offer to learn about black history and related contributions to society. Others weren’t interested, or only wanted to hear about the Civil Rights Movement. She also worked with Pepsi-Cola Company, which agreed to make copies of the movie Glory — the story of a black military unit that fought for the Union during the Civil War — and distribute them to every school in the county.
During each successive year, she increased the committee’s educational options, added to the large MLK celebration on the air base, offered educational courses at the Plattsburgh Public Library on Dr. King’s life, and participated in discussions on radio programs. In late August 1993, she organized a rally that was sponsored by the local MLK Jr. Commission, which she had founded a few years earlier. Held on the steps of Plattsburgh City Hall, the gathering honored King’s contributions to America. In her speech that day, Jackie proudly proclaimed, “This is my dream, to celebrate the words of Dr. King. I want to keep his memory and words alive.”
In February 1994, having been nominated for creating and guiding the MLK Jr. Commission, she was among 34 individuals to receive from Mario Cuomo the Governor’s Award for African-Americans of Distinction. Said Cuomo, “All of the recipients have made outstanding contributions to our tradition of family. Each has devoted time, energy, and expertise to foster a sense of community and provide essential services to the underserved.”
With the recent announcement that Plattsburgh Air Force Base was closing, she helped those affected by the move, spoke publicly on how the county’s ethnic makeup would be altered, and received an appreciation award from the base for years of dedicated service addressing difficult issues on behalf of the airmen stationed there. For her it was second nature, as she once told the Press-Republican’s Robin Caudell. “I have never been afraid to speak out for what I feel is right and for those who wouldn’t speak up for themselves.”
Later that same year, while exploring her family genealogy, Jackie discovered that her paternal great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran, had served not as a soldier but as a surgeon. The wonderfully named Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed had earned his medical degree from Yale University in 1857 and was assigned to what was called a “colored regiment.”
There was other importance attached to Cortlandt Creed. Although it’s not clear if Jackie was privy to those details, which weren’t mentioned in newspaper accounts of her discoveries back in 1994, but like his great-granddaughter, he was a pioneer of sorts. After the war, he became the rarest of physicians: a black doctor who treated both black and white patients. In fact, Creed was so respected that other doctors sought his medical opinion when President James Garfield was shot.
He is also considered a very big deal in Yale’s history, which credits him with many African-American accomplishments, including: the first to graduate from Yale, the first to earn a degree at Yale, and the first to earn a degree from any Ivy League school. So revered is he in school history that in 2007, Yale held a two-day celebration honoring the 150th anniversary of the graduation of Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, MD, culminating in the placement of a black granite memorial at the base of his gravestone.
But that all happened in 2007, six years too late for Jackie. She passed away in the Glens Falls Hospital in early April 2001 from complications linked to multiple sclerosis. It’s a tragic injustice that she didn’t witness the Yale celebration, which surely would have pleased her immensely.
I met Jackie, interacted with her a few times, respected and admired her, but can’t say I actually knew her, so perusing her life as reviewed here was an eye-opening pleasure. She held other titles, belonged to other organizations, and received other awards not mentioned in this accounting. By turning adversaries into admirers and indifference into activism, she played a leading role in the fight against racism in the North Country, while also speaking out on behalf of prison inmates, handicapped citizens, and anyone she believed was being treated unfairly. Even herself.
Which calls to mind my favorite story about Jackie, something she repeated many times to reporters and friends, but provided the best punchline when she told it in 1987 to Press-Republican staff writer Tom Bergin, who wrote the following:
“It was a simple case of racial discrimination that prompted Archer … to become involved in the fledgling civil rights movement in Plattsburgh. She had made an appointment with a woman to come to her home and cut her hair. The woman, who was white, didn’t show, apparently finding out beforehand that Archer was black. Archer called her and confronted her on the race problem.
“‘This is what really got me going,’ she said. ‘That woman will never know what she did for Plattsburgh.’”
To the unnamed dark-cloud-of-a-woman who refused service to Jackie: whoever you are … thanks, lady, for one helluva silver lining.
Photos: Jackie Archer (courtesy of her daughters, Taryn Archer and Tracey Lawson); scholarship offered by the MLK Jr. Commission that Jackie founded; headline, Press-Republican (1994); Cortlandt Creed memorial (findagrave)