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Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives

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​​GRAAMA Gains 5013c, Tax Exempt, Non-profit Status in Black History Month


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MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, MI - Dr. James Jackson, a physician and ardent civil rights activist, spent much of his life championing equality for all people.

Jackson, who was most known in the Muskegon area as the owner and co-founder of the James Jackson Museum of American History in Muskegon Heights, died Tuesday, June 26, at age 86. 

He leaves a legacy of self-determination and community stewardship focused on making life better for the disenfranchised.

A memorial service will be announced soon, said James McFadden, a longtime personal friend of Jackson's who is assisting with the management of his estate.

Jackson, born Sept. 8, 1931, in Springfield, Massachusetts, attended Wayne State University in Detroit and Des Moines University, medical school in Des Moines, Iowa. He worked as an osteopathic physician.

Jackson moved his family to the Muskegon area in 1960. Shortly thereafter, Jackson saw rampant segregation and economic disparity, and attempted to "level the playing field" with his activism, said William Muhammad, a longtime friend and a member of the James Jackson Museum board.

The doctor even made a bid for lieutenant governor in 1964, running under the all-black Freedom Now Party along with two other members. Muhammad said the act of black men organizing and getting on the ballot was wholly revolutionary for the time.

Jackson also was a historian who collected various pieces of African and African American memorabilia and displayed them in his office while he was still practicing medicine.

He eventually collected so many historical pieces, Jackson decided to open a museum, and in 2006 he moved it to 7 E. Center St., across from Muskegon Heights City Hall on Peck Street.

Jackson's historical refuge meant the world to him, but it didn't originally bear his name - a decision the museum's founder was opposed to, Muhammad said.

"The museum was an attempt to establish an institution that would allow and help people to get in touch with their history as black people, not just here in Muskegon, but around the world," Muhammad said. "He didn't like a lot of fanfare about himself ... but Dr. Jackson was one who believed in putting his money where his mouth was.

"He probably was the leading financial contributor to the museum, and he was the one who put it in motion."

After retiring from medicine in 2015, Jackson poured even greater sums of time and money into the location. That same year, Jackson held the location's first ever cultural celebration.

He worked a regular schedule at the museum up until a week before he was hospitalized, and eventually died, Muhammad said.

"He told me that maybe he thought he held on for too long," Muhammad said. "He did this very faithfully for years, especially after he retired. He was here three days a week every week."

With Jackson's death also come questions about the future of the museum. Muhammad said Jackson left plans in place - both financially and logistically - to keep the museum open for the foreseeable future.

Muskegon Heights City Manager Jake Eckholm said he and other city leaders are mourning Jackson's passing and that they would consider a partnership if the museum board thought it was appropriate.

Muhammad said the gesture was appreciated, but likely won't be necessary, as the museum has functioned as an independent venture since it's inception - a testament to Jackson's emphasis on black self-determination.

"His indomitable spirit and work ethic inspired others," Muhammad said. "We'll continue to try and keep the museum functioning as we believe doc would have us do. Doc truly wanted this to be an independent museum where we would be able to do whatever we believed was the right thing to do.

"He didn't want to be in a position where he would have to compromise something because of what this group or that group wanted.e your paragraph here.