Nat & Thelma Jackson

A Life in Service

Nathaniel “Nat” Jackson and Thelma Harrison both grew up in the Jim Crow-segregated South. Nat was born in Lillie, Louisiana in 1943 and Thelma in Prichard, Alabama in 1946. The two met in the fall of 1963 while attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and were married in 1966. Nat and Thelma credit the historically-black university for fostering their identities and preparing for their future careers. It affirmed their pride in being black.

For over 50 years, Nat and Thelma have dedicated themselves to fostering a better community for all in Lacey and Thurston County. Together and separately, they’ve worked to make opportunities accessible and equitable for everyone.

Nat and Thelma (left) at their 50th wedding anniversary in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Jacksons.

Nathaniel “Nat” Jackson

Nat was born in Lille, Louisiana in 1943, the great-grandson of plantation slaves. Growing up in rural Louisiana in the 1940s and 1950s was not easy. He went to a segregated school where the text books were the discarded scraps from the white schools and he spent 11 years as a sharecropper, basically a type of indentured servitude. This is how Nat described it in this excerpt from Nat & Thelma Jackson: You Win To Run, a publication of Legacy Washington.

“My people came here as slaves in the bottom of a ship, neither able to sit up nor move, chained in their own defecation for 17 days and 17 nights, then sold into the hell of enslavement the day after they were unloaded,” Jackson says, his voice thick with indignation. And when they were finally “free,” they had nowhere to go. “They stayed on their former master’s land because they had no money—not even a wagon,” Jackson says, chopping the air with his big right hand. “ ‘Well,’ says the master, ‘you darkies can stay on my place, do the farming and all the labor. I’ll give you the seeds and the fertilizer. Then we’ll split the profits,” which in practice usually fell far short of 50-50. “That lasted right through part of my lifetime—11 years on a white man’s land. I know what it’s like to grow up being called ‘nigger’ by white kids riding to school in buses while I walked to school. If you were white you could go inside and eat. They’d serve me through a damn little hole-in-the wall window. I had to eat outside. So what does that do to you? You could get mean about it or take that experience and get committed, get determined, get strengthened, motivated.”

When he was 12, Nat’s mother showed him the photos that had been published of Emmett Till’s body after he had been beaten and lynched by white men in Mississippi for the accusation of flirting or whistling at a white woman. She wanted Nat to see the reality of what they had done. For this horrific act, the men were acquitted. This seminal event gave Nat laser-focus—he was going to be a force for change in the world. He has dedicated his life to fighting for marginalized groups and he lives a life in service to that cause.

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What are Jim Crow laws?

In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, giving black men full citizenship and, in theory, equal protection under the law. However, this did not stop white men in power in the South from undermining these rights and freedoms. A series of state laws which created different rules for black people, came to be known as Jim Crow laws. (“Jim Crow” was a derogatory term for a black man.)

How was it possible for segregation laws to be passed when the Fourteenth Amendment seemingly did not allow it? A Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, set the stage. The state of Louisiana passed a law that would prevent black and white people from riding together on trains. The Supreme Court determined that the law could stand, making it lawful for public facilities to be “separate but equal,” and creating the system of segregation.

Segregation continued and after World War II, the Civil Rights Movement forced the end of Jim Crow laws. Another Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education ended educational segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally repealed the Jim Crow laws and ended segregation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 followed. Although it was no longer legal to keep minorities from voting or obtaining housing, the laws have not always stopped people from adhering to them, and the fight for the rights of minorities continues to this day.

Thelma Ann Harrison

Thelma grew up in Prichard, Alabama in the segregated Jim-Crow South, in an all-black neighborhood and an all-black school. She recalls walking to her school while white students rode the bus. She says that being in a segregated environment prepared her for her integrated adulthood. Although her family was poor, she was so nurtured, loved, and supported by her family and community, that she developed a very strong sense of self-worth and a can-do attitude. She was taught that failure was not an option and it was this seemingly-paradoxical environment that shaped the trajectory of her life. Although she was too young to have participated in the Civil Rights Movement, she was dedicated to the idea that one person can affect change, and activism became a part of life for her.

Thelma graduated from Mattie T. Blount High School in Prichard, Alabama and then enrolled in Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, earning a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry in 1968.

Stronger Together

Thelma and Nat met at Southern University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Nat was also a student. They both had a passion for civil rights and activism. According to You Run To Win, Thelma found it impressive that Nat had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at a civil rights rally in Chicago. Nat earned his degree in vocational agriculture education.  The couple was married on September 9, 1966 in Mobile, Alabama. They have been together over 55 years and are the proud parents of three adult children.

The Road to Washington

In 1968, Battelle Northwest, the Hanford Project laboratory located in Richland, Washington, recruited Thelma as an Inhalation Toxicologist—an opportunity the Jacksons credit to Affirmative Action. They loaded their belongings and 18-month-old daughter, Debrena, into their 1967 Chevy Camaro and headed to Washington.

The Jacksons experienced discrimination in Richland in and out of the workforce. The Hanford Project asked Nat to handle Plutonium-239. Pointed conversations around town dismissed the Jacksons’ and other African-American’s educations. That understandably didn’t sit right with them.

They soon moved to East Pasco where Nat worked as a Finance Officer for the City of Pasco. They found a connection with the local African-American community there; they worked with black youth and became involved in local government, education, criminal justice, and other civic activities.

In 1970, Nat was recruited by the state of Washington and he became an economic development specialist for the Washington State Office of Economic Opportunity in Olympia. Thelma wrapped up her work in eastern Washington and joined him in 1971, home-making and joining the North Thurston Public Schools Parent-Teacher Association.

Thelma’s Story, Continued

Throughout her life, Thelma worked relentlessly to improve educational opportunities for students and families. In Thurston County and Lacey, Thelma found herself at the center of parent-teacher involvement and racial and gender justice. She coordinated Work Options for Women at the Olympia Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) to improve the lives of women, girls, and the local community of color.  

In 1977, Dr. Jackson was appointed to the North Thurston County School Board and held the position for over 20 years. She focused on helping marginalized students and making the classroom the best possible learning environment. She soon became President of the Washington State School Directors Association and a Board of Trustees Member at The Evergreen State College.

Thelma with daughters Debrena (right) and Ericka
at Lydia Hawk Elementary School in the North
Thurston School District in the 1970s. Lacey
Museum, The Daily Olympian Collection

In 2002, Dr. Thelma Jackson received her PhD in Educational Leadership and Change from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. Around this time, she founded Foresight Consultants to assist with inclusive and diverse education, and improve schools. Her work takes her all over the United States in places like Houston, Texas.

In 2022, she published Blacks in Thurston County, Washington 1950-1975: A Community Album with co-editor Edward Echtle, which features 55 biographies on black people who lived in Thurston County between 1950 and 1975. The book is the result of a ten-year research project led by Thelma to identify black people during what was previously an absence of historical research.

Thelma continues to be a community activist and leader. She approaches the world with academic and experiential learning. Her legacy is to “make the community in which I live the best possible place for all people, including black folk, and other marginalized people to open up access and opportunity of every aspect of life.”

Nat’s Story, Continued

In 1973, Washington State Governor Daniel J. Evans appointed Nat as Senior Staff Assistant, making him the highest ranking African-American official in the United States at the time. Nat’s cabinet assignments included the Department of Social and Health services which included prisons, healthcare, and veteran affairs; the Department of Labor and Industries; and several other agencies. He also led the effort to establish the Office of Minority and Woman Business Enterprise.

“I was a businessman, I was a business child,” Nat said in 2022. Following his work in state government, Nat Jackson started Nat Jackson and Associates Inc., a successful telecommunications company. The multimillion dollar company ran alongside Nat’s other work as a monetary conflict negotiator for clients like the University of Washington and Sound Transit.

Nat pictured with Gov. Dan Evans (left), c. 1973. Photo courtesy of Ralph Munro.

Nat made an impact in the community as well. In 1993, Nat became the first Black president of the Olympia Rotary Club. In 2002, he started the Nat Jackson Charity Golf Tournament, which first supported The Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing and later also supported local Rotary Clubs.

Wellness has always been at the center of Nat’s life. In 2017, Nat became the “Jump Rope King—the fastest 70-plus jump roper in the United States after an appearance on Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots: Forever Young. Nat believes his “Jump Rope King” designation is more than just a title,  “it’s about being in the best condition you can be in. It’s about sustaining your health and passion for your family, and sustaining your own life.”

New Life Baptist Church

In 1975, when there were only 584 black people in all of Thurston County, the Jacksons helped found New Life Baptist Church, Lacey’s first, largest, and oldest predominantly- black church. It is also thought to be the first black church in Southwest Washington. For years, the only options for black theology and culture were in Tacoma and Seattle. Although many black residents of Thurston County often made the trip, the need for a local church was evident.

Nat recruited Reverend Henry O. Marshall as the first pastor. On June 1, 1975, New Life Baptist Church held its first service at the Olympia YWCA Friendship Hall and the Jacksons were in attendance. For many years, and without a building of their own, services were held in a variety of locations in the area, including a stint from 1977-1979 at the Cinema Theater in Olympia. The congregation purchased their first facility in 1979 and it was located on Puget Street in Olympia.

In 1993, New Life Baptist Church purchased over eight acres of land on Pacific Avenue in Lacey. In 1996, they purchased an adjacent parcel and they broke ground for the new facility on December 1, 1996. The congregation held their first service there on June 7, 1998. The congregation continues to thrive as a religious center for the multiracial community, in no small part to the contribution of the Jacksons.

Goose Pond Property

In 1850, Tyrus and Emeline Himes claimed what is now Goose Pond and Woodland Creek Community Park under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. The Fleetwood Family purchased several parcels from the Himes family and created the subdivision Fleetwood Acres. Their property included what is now Woodland Creek Community Park.

Fleetwood Acres plat map (left), 1923. Courtesy of Thurston County.

Frank Trubshaw, a long-time tenant, purchased the Goose Pond property in 1930. His family lived there until 1979 when they sold it to Roger and Marilyn Holmes. In 1991, the Jacksons purchased the 7.5 acre property from the Holmes family.

In 2004, BNSF railways abandoned the rail line along the bottom of the property and were legally obligated to return it to its original estate following a class-action lawsuit. BNSF returned the land to the Jacksons who then donated it to the City of Lacey for the Karen Fraser Woodland Trail.

In 2013, the City of Lacey installed a groundwater recharge well to improve water quality, flow, and reservoir collection at Woodland Creek. This led to unexpected consequences to Goose Pond, including the introduction of duckweed and changes to its the nutrient levels.

After working together to try and mitigate the problem for years, in 2019 the Jacksons sold the portion of the property that includes Goose Pond to the City of Lacey to continue ecological restoration efforts.

In 2022, the City of Lacey placed an interpretive marker along the Karen Fraser Woodland Trail at a location with a view through the trees of Goose Pond, as a tribute to the Jacksons.