Chasing Ghosts: Herbert Coleman Dickson, Sr.
My dad refused to believe me when I told him, well into my thirties, that I had never even seen a picture of his father, who died about nine years before I was born. Dad insisted that couldn’t be right, but if he had shown me one, I couldn’t remember it. There were certainly no pictures of him, or of my dad’s mother, hanging in our house. I wouldn’t have been able to pick my own grandfather’s face out of a group of photographs.
My father’s father, Herbert Coleman Dickson, Sr., was born in 1913 in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of James Davis Dickson and Myrtle Josephine (Jones) Dickson. (It is important to note here: you have to be mindful in my family history when working with the name James Davis Dickson, because there are several men with that name across two generations. The one I am referring to here was born in 1888 and died in 1961.) My grandfather was the middle child; he had an older brother, James Davis Dickson, Jr., born in 1910; and a younger sister, Josephine, born in 1925.
In the above photo, you can see James Davis Dickson, Sr. and his family. He and Myrtle are, of course, in the middle. The baby he is holding is my father, and the little girl is my aunt Jean. My grandparents, HC and Alberta Dickson, are standing on the left; James Dickson, Jr. is on the right, with his wife Dorothy on the left of him; and my great-aunt Josephine is standing all the way on the right.
Strangely enough, for all of the family members who I never met or who died when I was too young to remember them, I did know my grandfather’s mother, Myrtle. She lived well into her nineties, and I remember visiting her home in Jasper, where she lived on the property next to her youngest child – my grandfather’s younger sister – Josephine (Dickson) Zeigler and her husband Max. I also remember Josephine and Max fairly well.
My grandfather was named for his uncle, Herbert Coleman, who was married to James Davis Dickson, Sr.’s sister, Viola. Herbert Coleman was a photographer in Montgomery, and I still have the oil painting of him and the colorized photo of Viola that hung in our home when I was growing up. (When I think about it, it’s strange that we had pictures of my dad’s great-uncle Herbert and great-aunt Viola hanging in our house, but no pictures of his parents.) I’ve heard anecdotes about my great-great-uncle Herbert using the old photography method with the glass negatives where he would throw the black sheet over himself behind the camera, and how he used to ride an elliptical train route out into the boonies, take pictures, develop them back in his studio, then deliver the pictures on his next round trip to take more pictures.
I’ve only spent a little bit of time searching for information about my paternal grandfather at this point. I do know that my grandfather married Alberta Stradford, my grandmother, in November 1937. She was a little bit older than he was, having been born in 1910. (I’ll discuss more about my grandmother when I get to her story.) I also know, from anecdotes, that my grandfather dropped out of school short of graduating from high school.
The 1940 census lists Herbert and Alberta Dickson as living in Anniston, in Calhoun County, and at that point having no children. In the column that asks where they were living in April 1935, both of them list Jasper in Walker County, so that was likely where they met, if they married in 1937. In 1940, my grandfather’s occupation is listed as “salesman” for “wholesale tobacco” and hers is “housewife.” In 1940, the census has them renting a house at 1303 East 10th Street, which is confirmed by a City Directory from the time.
The couple had three children together. First was Doris Jean Dickson, born in 1940— my aunt Jean who lives down in Forest Home, Alabama. Second came my dad, Herbert Coleman Dickson, Jr., born in 1945. And finally, my uncle David was born in 1947. (Another note: you also have to be careful in my family history with the name David Dickson, because there’s a bunch of them, dating back to the one who moved our family to Montgomery County, Alabama from Troup County, Georgia before the Civil War.)
I have to do some more searching to figure out how Herbert Dickson, Sr. and his family got from north Alabama back to the Montgomery area where the family’s roots were. I can remember my dad talking about living in Opelika when he was very young, so there were obviously multiple moves. At some point, in the 1950s, my grandparents bought the house at 3902 Princeton Road in the then-new middle-class subdivision of Normandale in Montgomery. My dad kind of grew up there. By the time my dad and his siblings were all grown, only my dad remained in Montgomery. Jean married my Uncle Bobby and had moved away, and David had married my Aunt Deborah and moved to Columbus, Georgia. So my dad inherited that house, when his mother died in 1972. Consequently, I grew up in that house, too; I lived there until 1997. The house stayed in the family for the better part of five decades.
The only thing I really know about my father’s father is that he was a salesman for the gas company. He sold commercial restaurant equipment. My mother has told me that her father, Andrew Conley Foster, knew him from the restaurant business and thought a lot of him, which was the only reason that he allowed her to date my dad. (My parents met when my mom was still in high school and my dad was in the Marine Corps.)
Unfortunately, my grandfather Herb Dickson, Sr. died in May 1965, at the age of 52, a few days before my dad’s twentieth birthday— a date that also came before my mother and father were dating, so my mother never knew him either. My uncle Bobby has told me the story of his death, and if I recall it correctly, he said:
My grandmother (Alberta) called Bobby to come over to their house, because “Mr. Dickson” wasn’t well, and Bobby found him in the bed, moaning, in obvious pain, and unable to communicate. The Jewish man who lived across the street had come over to try to help when he saw the ambulance arrive. My grandfather was having a massive heart attack, so he was taken to the hospital, where he lived for a few days, but he had another massive heart attack, which killed him.
Things I have heard about my grandfather are that he was a consummate salesman, always quick with a joke, very jovial, and always impeccably dressed. According to my dad, his father put his own needs, especially in the area of clothes, ahead of the needs of the rest of his family, mainly because he felt like his appearance was inextricably tied to his work. Every picture I have of him shows a very dapper man, immaculately groomed.
I’ve known two other men who grew up in the same neighborhood with my dad, and they both said the same thing about my grandfather: he was funny and friendly all the time. That’s hard for me to imagine because every picture I now have of him shows an unsmiling man, fastidiously dressed and groomed, in stern repose.
I’ve got some more research to do on my grandfather, so there is more to come on him.