Chasing Ghosts: James Davis Dickson, Sr.
[This is the seventh post in the series, Chasing Ghosts.]
Born in 1888 in Athens, Alabama to David Madison Dickson, Jr. and Blandeanah “Blandie” (Eubank) Dickson, James Davis Dickson, Sr. was my great-grandfather. His middle son, Herbert Coleman Dickson, was my father’s father. Even though I did know his wife – my great-grandmother – Myrtle (Jones) Dickson, I know almost nothing about my great-grandfather. My dad almost never discussed him, and he died in 1961, thirteen years before I was born.
My great-grandfather was – I’m guessing – named for James Davis Goss, who was his grandmother Mary Ann (Goss) Dickson’s younger brother. James Davis Goss would have been his daddy’s uncle. He was born in 1828 in Troup County, Georgia, and records show that he married a woman named Alice Jones in 1849 in Union Springs, in Bullock County, Alabama. Bullock County is adjacent to Montgomery County, where my people settled after leaving Troup County. Never hurts to have in-laws nearby . . .
Early information about my great-grandfather is sparse. I can find no records of the family in 1890 census records, but some time between JD Dickson’s birth and 1895, the family moved from Athens in north Alabama to Montgomery, back to where his father was from. The 1895 Montgomery city directory lists his father, D M Dickson, as a “special agent” of “Equitable L[ife] Insurance Society of New York” and Blandie Dickson separately as the proprietress of Clifton House, where D M Dickson also has his residence. In 1895, JD would have been a child, about 7.
The first records of my great-grandfather that I can find appear in the 1900 census. James Dickson is shown living with his parents and siblings. Blandie is recorded as having 9 children, all living. David and Blandie are 49 and 48, respectively, and JD is almost at the bottom of their listing, at age 11. Above him are his siblings: a sister named Sammie, age 29; brother David, age 27; brother Leonidas, age 25; sister Bernice, age 21; brother Allie, age 16; and sister Fannie, age 14. The digitized record incorrectly connects a 21-year-old “daughter-in-law” named Ruby, age 21, to James, but that isn’t possible since a grown woman wouldn’t be married to an 11-year-old boy. The family is in Montgomery, at 216 Bibb Street, and David Dickson is a “Boarding House Keeper.” (This Bibb Street address must have been for the Clifton House.) This means that David Dickson’s boarding house was located where the very large Renaissance Hotel is now, where the lone-standing Montgomery Civic Center was before that.
Something about the scene set in the 1900 census record reminds me very much of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. In the novel, which is a set in a fictional version of Asheville, North Carolina, the boy narrator – a thinly veiled version of Wolfe himself – is the youngest child of a bustling household, with a mother who runs a boarding house called Dixieland. Maybe I’m romanticizing, but I picture young JD Dickson getting lost in the shuffle of busy downtown life, the boarders and his much older siblings. Eight boarders are listed below daughter-in-law Ruby, and their occupations include express messengers and railroad workers whose places of origin are Kentucky, Ireland, South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia and New York.
I also looked up my great-great-uncle and aunt, Herbert and Viola Coleman, during this time period, since I didn’t see Viola listed in the boardinghouse entry. Viola was JD Dickson’s older sister, who was 23 in 1900. Herbert Coleman was the man that my grandfather, Herbert Coleman Dickson, was named for. The Colemans are living nearby, on South Court Street near Dexter Avenue, in downtown Montgomery, about two or three blocks from Clifton House. JD Dickson must’ve thought a lot of Herbert Coleman because after naming his eldest son after himself – James Davis Dickson, Jr. – he named his second son after a brother-in-law twenty years his elder.
The 1910 census page on Ancestry.com shows that a record for James D Dickson, age 21, and Myrtle Dickson, age 18, should be there, but whoever digitized the records has it pointing to the wrong scanned file. The couple is nowhere on the census page that does come up when the “View” option is clicked. But, if the accessible part is correct, then he had met and married Myrtle, and they were on their own, living in Birmingham. How they got there, or why they went, I don’t know.
James Dickson’s draft card for World War I has him still in Birmingham, living at 223 Old 50th Street in Birmingham. He is married to Myrtle and working as a teller for a trust company. He did apply for an exemption to military service, since he was married with two children, my great uncle James Davis Dickson Jr. and my grandfather Herbert Coleman Dickson, both of whom would have been too small to even be in school yet. The card also tells that he had served as a private in the National Guard for three years, but I don’t know when or where.
I also could not locate the 1920 census record for the family, but the 1920 Birmingham city director still has the Dicksons living on Old 50th Street and has James working at Birmingham Trust and Savings Company. A few years later, the 1926 city directory from Birmingham has James D. Dickson working as a cashier for Wahouma Savings Bank but living at 7111 Second Avenue South, so some time in the early 1920s, the young family moved.
The 1930 census shows the Dickson family still living on Second Avenue South in Birmingham. JD is 41 and Myrtle is 38; their children are 19, 16 and 4 1/2. My great-aunt Josephyne had been born in 1925. JD Dickson’s occupation still reflects that he was a “Cashier” at a “Bank,” and his oldest son James Jr. is listed as a “Chancery Clerk” for the “County.” Other than the standard fare answers for the time and place, Myrtle Jones’s mother is listed as being from Illinois; the rest are all Alabama.
By the 1940 census, the family mad moved to Jasper in Walker County, Alabama. Only Josephine is living with her parents, and she is 14. (My grandparents married in 1937.) The column for where they lived in April 1935 simply says “Same Place” so the family has moved during the first half of the 1930s. JD’s occupation still reads “Cashier” in “Bank.”
This photo shows James Davis Dickson, Sr. surrounded by his family. His wife Myrtle stands immediately in front of him. My grandfather Herbert Coleman Dickson, Sr. and my grandmother Alberta Stradford Dickson (in the overcoat) are on the left in this photo; my aunt Jean is the little girl standing in front, and my dad is baby being held by his grandfather. On the far right is my great-aunt Josephyne Dickson, and to the left of her is my very stern-looking great uncle James Davis Dickson, Jr. and his smiling wife. Given that my dad is a baby here, this photo is probably from 1946.
That’s as far as the records take me in looking for my great-grandfather, other than his death certificate. James Davis Dickson, Sr. died in May 1961. He was 72 years old.
One personal note of another genealogy searcher on Ancestry.com describes him as the vice-president of a bank and a leader in the local Methodist church. By the time he moved to Jasper, he had been in banking for most of his adult life. I don’t know how he moved from a simple cashier in the 1940s to a bank vice-president within the twenty years between 1940 and 1960, but apparently he did.
Looking at these facts of my great-grandfather’s life, he seems like a very steady kind of guy. He stayed in one line of work – banking – and his family seldom moved. In the pictures I have, he appears pleasant is even smiling in some pictures. If that one note about his correct then he was a “pillar of the community” in Jasper as bank VP and leader in his church.
Though I’m not ready to write at length about it, JD Dickson must have been a stark contrast to his father, whose I’ve seen described in books as being a less-than-stellar head of household . . .