Our Strategic Vision

Answers from Our Ancestors: The Jacksons on BFS, Friends Education and Quakerism

Will Walter Jackson

Unlike computers or labs or books, defining the heart of Brooklyn Friends School is difficult. That heart is rooted in Quakerism and we do try to explain these “intangibles” which are shared and passed down, and which can be extremely personal to each individual. They make up the very air we breathe at our school, but to understand the things that make us who we are and that make BFS what it is one can look to our school’s history for insights from those who came before us.

The Jackson Family is unbelievably important to Brooklyn Friends School: they did tremendous work for our school from the 1880s into the 1960s and BFS literally would not exist today had it not been for their stewardship and guidance. In the future, I will focus on what these three generations of Jacksons accomplished for Brooklyn Friends School, but today I feel compelled to share their own words about BFS, Friends education and Quakerism.

Will Walter Jackson seems to have been the longest serving trustee in the history of the Schools Board of New York Monthly Meeting, the board which oversaw both Brooklyn Friends School and Friends Seminary for many, many years. A graduate of Friends Seminary, Will’s 50 years of service on the board began in 1892 when he was 20 years old and finishing at Columbia, he became board chair in 1907, and retired in 1942. A Quaker, Will’s deep understanding of not only his faith, but also of all children and education, especially Friends education, remain at the core of the Brooklyn Friends School we know today, sixty years after his death.

Working with older editions of The Life in our school’s physical archives that I hope one day to share online in the school’s digital archives, I came across this piece written by Will Walter Jackson. It opens with a quote from Gertrude Stein’s noted essay, “American Education and Colleges,” first published in The New York Herald Tribune, March 16, 1935, less than two weeks before this edition of The Life went to press. Stein’s essay created a huge stir in education and was quoted and debated widely. Will Walter Jackson’s insights into our school, Quakerism, and Friends education in 1935 are still pertinent and help reveal the heart of Brooklyn Friends School.

Guest Editorial by Will Walter Jackson,  The Life,  March 27, 1935

Friends education often means different things to different people. When trying to explain the reason Friends schools were first founded in England and the United States in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the phrase “a guarded education” is used almost to distraction. That phrase has many interpretations, including the idea that Friends sought to protect their children from the influences, temptations and distractions of the larger society, or that Friends wanted to be in that world but not of it. One must also understand that there was no system of universal public education in England or the United States until the 19th Century: all costs of every child fortunate enough to go to school in those days were funded by tuition and charitable contributions. When trying to understand the past, I like to consult historic newspapers as I find that learning of older times is often best attained through eyes more contemporary to a specific era than the era in which I find myself living, so I was delighted to find a 1905 front page article from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle about Brooklyn Friends School, Quakerism, and much more, which contains no mention of “a guarded education,” but does have this insight about the history of Friends education:

Their schools are almost, if not quite, invariably the outgrowth of their congregational worship, and the school buildings are a part or annexes of their meeting houses. The reason for this refers back to former days, when there was a deal of prejudice against these quaint, quiet and unobtrusive people, on account of the peculiar customs and views which characterized the sect, and when they were content, for the sake of mutual protection, to isolate themselves and adopt a scheme of household or communal life which was extended to their system of education. In banding themselves together thus they extended their sympathy, and opened their schools to others who were, in  a manner, likewise the victims of social ostracism.

Interestingly, that 1905 article immediately thereafter contains several extensive quotes on the history of Quakerism and NYC Friends schools from William Morris Jackson, so it was likely the author used his words as the source for the content of the above paragraph, plus, it so concerns the history of Friends education. William Morris Jackson was a trustee for the schools of New York Monthly Meeting from the 1880s until 1907 when his son, the afore-mentioned Will Walter Jackson, succeeded him as chairman. A former teacher at Friends Seminary and former principal of Friends Academy in Richmond, Indiana, William Morris Jackson was simutaneoulsy on the Board of Managers for Swarthmore College from 1887 to 1906. The Jackson Family’s long presence on our board is not an example of nepotism: they were people of integrity and humility who had the highest interest in Friends education and they were able to commit to the fully engaging work of running the schools; the Jacksons’ contributions to New York Monthly Meeting saw great fulfillment in their unwavering commitment to the work of the Meeting, including the schools; and they deeply believed in sharing and passing down knowledge. Their consistent presence on the schools board greatly shaped Brooklyn Friends School for all time.

George Bement Jackson in 1917
Captain of the BFS
Boys Basketball Team

The third generation of the Jackson Family to serve on the schools board was Will Walter Jackson’s son, George Bement Jackson, who graduated BFS in 1917: he joined the board in 1930, was chair from 1954 to 1959, and George apparently left the board in the early 1960s. In a conversation with his daughter Barbara Hazard, she told a wonderful story to me (I have paraphrased it) about her father which I feel sheds light on the Jackson Family’s view of Quakerism and which can even be said to impact their perspectives on Friends education.

Shortly before she went to boarding school at the age of 13, George said he wanted to have a private talk with Barbara. Like many young women throughout the ages, she was very concerned about this conversation with her father – to her surprise, it was about Quakerism. George’s talk that day with his daughter is what led to her own decision to become a birthright Quaker. George spoke to Barbara about being a Quaker, explained Quakerism to her, and further stated that she could choose to be a birthright Quaker or not, that this was her decision. George Jackson’s words from that circa-1945 conversation with his daughter about Quakerism are still beautiful and true today: “Quakers believe that everyone has a light inside of them, a bit of God. Your job as a Quaker is to increase that light within yourself and to increase that light in others.”

Look for more on the Jackson Family’s impact on Brooklyn Friends School in the next school year along with future discoveries from the archives. This blog, The Blue and Gray, will be suspended for the next three months so that other archival and historical business can be addressed. Have a wonderful and restful summer!