Alabamiana: JW Dickson, 1854 –1921

I first came across the name JW Dickson when I was reading Hassan Jeffries’ Bloody Lowndes about six or seven years ago. Jeffries’ history of voting-rights efforts by disillusioned SNCC workers in 1966 and 1967 begins with some background on the place. Lowndes County is in the Black Belt region of west Alabama, situated between Montgomery and Dallas counties, and the route of the 1965 march went right through there on Highway 80. Known as one of the more brutally segregationist places in this region of archetypal Southern plantations, “Bloody Lowndes” earned its nickname. In this situation, in 1903, Sheriff JW Dickson had bought the labor of  a black man named Dillard Freeman who could not pay his court fines, then refused to let him visit his sick brother. But Freeman went anyway.

Frustrated and desperate, Freeman sneaked away from the farm, but the sheriff tracked him to his mother’s house and beat him mercilessly in her presence. After the beating, he tied the young man’s hands behind his back, fastened a rope around his neck, and handed the loose end to a henchman sitting astride a mule. Dickson then forced him to run more than six miles back to his plantation and whipped him whenever his pace slowed. Upon their return, Dickson beat Freeman again, this time with a piece of gin belt attached to a wooden handle. When the sheriff tired, he handed the whip to another of his men who finished administering the punishment. (18-19)

Freeman was so badly beaten and scarred that “other field hands had to grease his back so he could bend to work,” and from then on, he was chained to stop him from trying to escape again. (This same story appears in the seventh chapter of Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name.)

Because Lowndes County and Montgomery County are adjacent, I’ve been interested for a long time in the possible connections between the Lowndes County Dicksons and the Montgomery County Dicksons, though I’ve never been able to draw a line between them. My branch of the Dickson family left Troup County in western Georgia and settled in Montgomery County in the 1850s, then faltered and split after the Civil War, with successive generations leaving the area then returning in the 1950s. It seems, from JW Dickson’s father John being listed in pre-Civil War census records in Coweta County, that the Lowndes County Dicksons would be related to my branch, but I haven’t been able to find any people we have in common.

Unlike the Dicksons in my line, the Lowndes County Dicksons moved to the Alabama Black Belt, set up homestead farms, and stayed put. There in Lowndes County, they prospered economically and politically. The 1860 census for Hayneville shows the large family of John and Sarah (Williamson) Dickson in scant detail, with JW there at age 5. Shortly after the Civil War, the 1870 census shows young JW Dickson, aged 15, along with his parents and siblings Joseph, aged 17; Eliza, aged 13; John, aged 7; Edwin, aged 5; and Lewis, aged 2, in the rural farming community of Letohatchee. In the latter document, his parents are both listed as having been born in Georgia, though JW and his brothers and sisters were born in Alabama— more evidence that they came over from Georgia about the same time that my forebears did. It is also worth noting that every other person on that census page, on the page before it, and on the page after it are all either black or mulatto, and almost all of the adults are described as farm laborers or domestics. The elder John Dickson must have been operating his farm on a large scale to employ so many people.

JW Dickson appears to have taken up the family business, farming in Letohatchee, and by the end of the 1800s, was becoming active in politics. In 1887, when he was about 32, his testimonial appears in a Montgomery Advertiser ad for a brand of oats. In January 1888, he married a woman named ME Ivey. (The 1880 census for Letohatchee shows a 20-year-old woman named Mary E. Ivey. Presumably that’s her.) In 1894, he was shown among a list of Democratic party delegates, chosen by resolution. Later, in 1895, he had an ad in the Advertiser offering to stud his English setter, and the Citizen-Examiner newspaper in the county seat of Hayneville showed that a lawsuit brought against him by a man named WA Broughton was being continued. All mundane matters of business as usual.

The 1900 census then fleshes out JW Dickson a little more. He was 45 years old and living with his wife, whose name is illegible in the record. (Though this is only a guess: as it is written, her name looks like “Emme”, which could be a misspelling based on a misunderstanding of her initials: ME.) Living with them were also a boarder named Mollie Satterwhite, who was the grown daughter of nearby planter SA Satterwhite, as well as two black house servants. Again, every person surrounding his little family on the page is black. Sadly, across the column next to his wife’s name, we see that she bore one child who did not live. (Interestingly, a December 1900 social announcement in the Greenville’s The Living Truth newspaper has him and Miss Satterwhite attending a Dickson family wedding together— with no mention of Mrs. Dickson in the list of attendees.)

In 1900, JW Dickson was elected sheriff of Lowndes County. At that time, having one’s name on the “County Democratic Ticket” was tantamount to winning. A year later, in October 1901, the public notice in the Hayneville newspaper about the vote to ratify Alabama’s now-infamous state constitution bore Dickson’s name. In subsequent years, various other public notices on everyday legal matters also bear his name, showing him acting as executor of an estate or proclaiming the sale of seized property.

Though his name is misspelled on the Department of Labor’s webpage on the subject, JW Dickson comes up as well in the story of WEB Dubois’ Black Studies work in Lowndes County from 1897 – 1907. According to this information, Dickson and his family were the among the prime impediments to Dubois’ efforts:

The problem the Bureau of Labor faced can be surmised from the experience of the Department of Justice. A U.S. attorney described a case involving J. W. Dixon, sheriff of Lowndes County, the same county Du Bois was studying. When the Grand Jury investigated an incredibly brutal case of forced labor, “five Dixon brothers rode up on their horses at 12 o’clock Saturday night” to warn one of the grand jurors “what to expect.” “These Dixons,” the U.S. attorney observed, “are men of the highest political and financial influence. They are large planters and control a great deal of labor….They are said to have killed several men. It is believed that witnesses are practically compelled to perjure their souls because they fear their lives.” The Dixons were not indicted.

That forced-labor case could well have been Dillard Freeman.

JW Dickson’s prominent position in Lowndes County continued for more than a decade. In 1908, he declared himself as a candidate for tax assessor, and in 1912, for county schools superintendent. In 1915, as foreman of a county grand jury, Dickson was the one reporting to the public on the number of indictments and how monies were spent.

JW Dickson died in 1921 and is buried in Lowndes County, where it seems that he lived his entire life. Though he and his wife had no children, the Dickson name didn’t fade in Lowndes County. Later in Bloody Lowndes, Jeffries alludes to Robert Dickson, Jr., who was the head of the Lowndes County Democrat Party at the time of the SNCC effort in the mid-1960s. In fact, the grand Dicksonia plantation house near Lowndesboro is still standing today.

Though I don’t relish (or even want) a connection between my family and the brutal acts that gave “Bloody Lowndes” it’s nickname, I do think that it is important to explore and confront the past, especially our own personal past. I was already aware that my ancestor who came to Alabama from Georgia, David Madison Dickson, owned slaves. I am also aware that, on another branch of my family tree, I have other relatives who lived in Fort Deposit and Sandy Ridge in Lowndes County from the mid-1800s through the 1960s. So when I see stories like the one about JW Dickson and Dillard Freeman in 1903, or about a historic marker about a lynching in 1900 in Letohatchee, I have to acknowledge them. I’ve never seen any evidence that any of my people participated, but their connection – and consequently my connection – to “Bloody Lowndes” is still real.


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