Gaston: Samuel L. Jackson's Chattanooga Roots

Gaston: Samuel L. Jackson's Chattanooga Roots

June 16th, 2019 by Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns

Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson attend the premiere of "Shaft" at AMC Lincoln Square on June 10, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Photo by Charles Sykes

When Samuel Leroy Jackson was interviewed on the CBS program "60 Minutes" in March, he wasn't reluctant to mention his Chattanooga roots. His long career as a star on stage and screen probably qualifies Jackson as the most famous Chattanoogan, as well as one of the wealthiest.

In the CBS segment, Jackson and Steve Kroft walked along Fourth Street near Lookout Street where Sam lived with his grandparents. He was born in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21, 1948, but was raised by his grandparents and extended family. His aunt Etna taught him to read at age 2 and let him sit in the back of her fourth-grade classroom. When her students couldn't answer questions, she asked young Sam to answer them. As a result, he routinely had to defend himself at lunchtime in fights with the older kids.

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As he grew up he attended several Chattanooga schools, all segregated at the time, among them Orchard Knob Elementary. Between the third and 12th grades he played the French horn and trumpet in the school orchestra. He got over a stuttering problem but still stutters occasionally. He is a proud graduate of Riverside High School (now the Chattanooga School for Arts & Sciences) and in 2016 pledged money to three Chattanooga schools through

Jackson wanted to be a marine biologist when he went off to Morehouse College in Atlanta. He joined an acting group to earn extra points and switched his major. In 1968 he attended the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. as an usher. His involvement in protests in 1969 led to a suspension from school, but he returned to the Morehouse campus. He founded the "Just Us Theatre" before graduating with his bachelor of arts degree in drama in 1972.

He appeared in a version of The Threepenny Opera and acted in multiple plays including "Home" and "A Soldier's Play." He appeared in television films and made his feature film debut in the independent film "Together for Days" (1972) before moving to New York City in 1976. For the next 10 years he appeared in stage plays, among them "The Piano Lesson" and "Two Trains Running" at the Yale Repertory Theater. Early in his film career he was mentored by Morgan Freeman. After a 1981 appearance in "A Soldier's Play," he was introduced to director Spike Lee, who gave him small parts in "School Daze" (1988) and "Do the Right Thing" (1989). He had a small role in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and worked for three years as a stand-in for Bill Cosby on "The Cosby Show."

Jackson had problems with drugs and entered a rehabilitation clinic. After successfully completing the program, he appeared in "Jungle Fever" as a crack cocaine addict. He acknowledged that the role was cathartic. The film was so acclaimed that the 1991 Cannes Film Festival created a special "Supporting Actor" award especially for him. Subsequent roles were in the comedy "Strictly Business," dramas "Juice" and "Patriot Games," followed by comedies "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1" (his first starring role) and "Amos and Andrew." He worked with Steven Spielberg in "Jurassic Park" (1993).

His 30th film, "Pulp Fiction," brought him international recognition. One reviewer wrote that Jackson was the actor who reigned over "Pulp Fiction": "He just about lights fires with his gremlin eyes and he transforms his speeches into hypnotic bebop soliloquies." He had box-office successes in "Die Hard With a Vengeance" and "A Time to Kill." Starring roles followed in 1997. The following year he worked with Sharon Stone and Dustin Hoffman in "Sphere" and with Kevin Spacey in "The Negotiator." A favorite role was that of Jedi Master Mace Windu in George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

On June 13, 2000, Jackson was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2006, Jackson became the seventh African American and 191st actor to be honored with a hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theater. In 2009 The Guinness Book of World Records named Jackson the world's highest grossing actor with earnings of $7.42 billion in 68 films.

Recent film roles include Quentin Tarantino's productions "Django Unchained" (2012) and "The Hateful Eight" (2015), Jordan Vogt-Roberts' "Kong: Skull Island" (2017), and a reprise of his role as Mr. Glass in Unbreakable in the 2019 film "Glass."

Jackson met his wife, LaTanya Richardson, while he was at Morehouse College; their daughter Zoe was born in 1982. In 2009 the Jacksons started their own charitable organization to advance education.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit

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