The Erasure of Winston M.C. Dickson, Pomona's First Black Graduate
Saahil Desai | Feb. 5, 2016, 3:30 p.m.
Winston M.C. Dickson has no living relatives. There are are no signs of life at both his longtime work and home addresses, piles of weeds shrouding whatever lingering evidence that might remain of Dickson’s past. Even his tiny hometown in Texas has long been wiped away from highway maps. All tangible connections to Dickson’s life have seemingly been erased, leaving behind only tattered fragments of a noble, yet forgotten life of the man who, in 1904, became Pomona College’s first African-American graduate.
Pomona’s recently announced “Lighting the Path to 2025” initiative is a noble product of the President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity, committing the college to a more substantively diverse faculty and student body in the decade to come. Yet, the document is entirely situated in the near future, making no mention of Pomona’s complex racial past, and its long, unglamorous history of lily-white homogeneity.
Winston M.C. Dickson remains all but forgotten in the collective memory of Pomona College. “I had gone around telling everyone that I was the first black male to graduate from Pomona College,” Dr. Willie Benton Boone ’62 told me, a graduate from the first cohort of black students to enter Pomona in 1958. None of the three early histories of the college — The Story of Pomona College, Granite and Sagebrush, and The History of Pomona College: 1887–1969 — mention Dickson by name.
How could Dickson — a prominent black attorney for fifty years in deeply-segregated Houston— so easily fade into the abyss of history? When pieced together, the remaining fragments of Winston M.C. Dickson’s life suggest a man with an insatiable thirst for education and characterized by a type of resiliency forged by the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
By the time Winston M.C. Dickson would have arrived in Claremont on the sun-baked dirt leading up to the Old Santa Fe train station, he was approaching age 29 and a full decade older than most of his classmates. The curious tale of Winston M.C. Dickson begins far before his arrival to Pomona College.
Dickson was born in 1872 in or around Crockett, Texas, a tiny farming community 100 miles north of Houston. When he’s twenty-one, Dickson’s hometown is listed as Udston, a settlement on the fringes of Crockett so small that it completely vanished from highway maps by the mid-1930s. The eldest son of two freed slaves — Elizabeth S. Dickson and Winston W. Dickson, a “mullato” farmworker born in Georgia — Winston M.C. Dickson’s childhood in rural Texas was probably representative of the type of deep poverty that burdened so many other black farming families in the South.
“Crockett was a small town while I was teaching there,” said Bobbie Bradford, a Pomona music professor who taught in the town’s school in 1963. He had not heard of Dickson. “There were probably around 5,000 people in the town, both black and white. It was a rural community there. It’s where you would find a lot of black people who had ranches — not big things like something from TV with John Wayne, but people who had ranches and who raised cattle.”
Growing up in Crockett or Udston, Winston M.C. Dickson would have had few, if any, legitimate opportunities to acquire a formal education. “You have to understand, there was no public education for African-Americans in the Old Confederacy and the Border States,” said Lorn Foster, a Pomona politics professor since 1978 who studies the African-American church. Brutal days Dickson spent toiling in the fields of Crockett with his father and brother David would have left little time for school.
When Dickson was of college age, he enrolled at Tillitson College, a small black college in Austin. Since education was so deficient for young African-Americans reared in the wake of slavery, black colleges would quite literally begin their curriculum with the alphabet, and most graduates earned teaching certificates rather than bachelor degrees. After leaving Tillitson in 1894 with a teaching certificate in hand, Dickson began teaching in a black high school on the cusp of downtown Houston in 1896.
How would Winston M.C. Dickson have heard about Pomona College by 1900, let alone be compelled to apply? Still in its infancy, Pomona was on increasingly shaky financial grounds, and the college better resembled a disparate coalition of buildings amid the barren wasteland of Southern California than any sort of cohesive campus. While quickly growing, Pomona College had just 100 students when Winston M.C. Dickson would have enrolled, and in his graduating class of 23 students, just one other student hailed from outside Southern California.
At best, black communities in Los Angeles were fledging in 1900 when Dickson arrived in Claremont. “Oh god, there were none,” said Professor Foster with a chuckle when asked if there could have been any African-Americans in Claremont or the Inland Empire in 1900. The city of Los Angeles had only 2,131 African-Americans in a city of over 100,000, mainly centered in one downtown area known as “Brick Block.”
How exactly would a black man have enrolled at an unknown college more than 1,300 miles away from his home in an area basically devoid of any other African-Americans? The Congregationalist roots of both Pomona College and Tillitson College (now Huston-Tillitson University) suggest that the church must have played some intermediary role in his enrollment. The Congregationalist-led American Missionary Association — the crown jewel of the church’s efforts to ameliorate the plight of blacks — spent millions to educate freed blacks across the South. AMA missionaries, mostly women from the Northeast, “came not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the places of defilement where slavery had wallowed them,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, a year before Dickson’s graduation from Pomona.
As former President E. Wilson Lyon briefly notes in The History of Pomona College: 1887–1969, Pomona was “by tradition a part of the 19th century commitment of that denomination to the full participation of black Americans in our national life. Congregationalists were leaders in the abolition movement and after the Civil War they were the first to establish colleges for blacks in the Southern states. Pomona had never had any racial barrier to admission.”
Really, the American Missionary Association is the only conceivable explanation for how Winston M.C. Dickson could have ended up at Pomona. AMA missionaries from Dickson’s days at Tillitson must have been the ones who introduced him to fellow Congregationalist leaders at Pomona. Dickson is awarded a stray mention in Issue 47 of The American Missionary — the AMA’s hugely popular magazine — indicating at the very least that he was in contact with these missionaries.
His tall frame towering over his classmates, Winston M.C. Dickson very well could have buckled under the stress of isolation and exclusion at Pomona. Yet, by any indication, he thrived. As a junior, he was the associate editor ofThe Student Life and the president of the Choral Union. He assumed the presidency of the Literary Society and the Prohibition League as a senior, and was a prolific debater on campus with the Pomona College Debate Club. For such a small college light years away from Los Angeles, Pomona College was treated to jaw-dropping array of campus visitors while Dickson was at Pomona: Jane Addams. Booker T. Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt.
While California may have been more tolerant of blacks than was Texas, Winston M.C. Dickson was hardly absolved from the pernicious effects of racism at Pomona. Blackface minstrel shows that lampooned African-Americans were a frequent occurrence on campus. Well into the 1920s, Pomona was hosting minstrel shows with ads in TSL urging readers to fork up the 50 cents admissions fee to “Laff! Laff! Laff! An’ Den Laff Some Mo.”
In the few surviving photos of Winston M.C. Dickson from his time at Pomona, he’s usually relegated to the side of the shot, far from integrated among his white peers. While technically a member of the Cajole Club, an early campus fraternity, Dickson is inexplicably missing from half of their photos. There is a twinge of pain and isolation detectable in Dickson’s soft mellow eyes, a manifestation of a life, like so many others, shaped by the scars of racism.
The lone black student at a college that had few qualms about caricaturing his race, Dickson’s four years at Pomona must have been almost incomprehensibly difficult. His ability to graduate from Pomona, let alone as a class day speaker with “the magnetic voice and manner of a trained orator” as the LA Times put it, reflects a serious student determined in his resolve to graduate, and unwilling to wilt in the face of such open hostility.
Right after his graduation on June 2, Dickson left Pomona for Harvard, earning a Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1905, and then a Master of Jurisprudence in 1907 just across the Charles River at the Boston University School of Law.
In 1911, as Winston M.C. Dickson returned to Houston and established his law practice, the population of the city was booming: a town of 45,000 in 1900 would morph into a city of 138,000 two decades later. By the early 1960s, Houston had reached a million residents. Dickson moved his practice to 409 ½ Milam Street in 1912, in the black section of downtown, where he occupied the same office suite for the next forty-five years until his retirement in 1957. A casualty of Houston’s urban sprawl, the building has been replaced by a multi-story parking structure.
At the time that Dickson returned to Houston from Boston with his newly minted degree, black attorneys were a rarity in the Old Confederacy, and Dickson would have been among the first cohort of black attorneys to set up shop in the city. A Whitepages-style listing of Houston’s black residents from 1915 has only 19 attorneys listed — Dickson included — even though the city’s black population had already eclipsed 30,000. As late as 1983, this ratio had not budged: the city had just 300 black lawyers for its 440,000 black residents.
While there is no indication that Dickson ever had any children, he reported to Pomona in 1930 that had been married to Marie Vida Brown since 1915. But, in the 1940 census, Dickson is identified as the husband of another woman named Rea Dickson. Surprisingly, there is not even a morsel of additional information available about either of these women; apparently, no one named Marie Vida Brown even lived in Houston while Dickson was there.
Life as an attorney in the Jim Crow South was a difficult, often debilitating job. Of course, blacks could not represent whites, which limited the number of potential clients as well as the types of law that they could practice. In the overwhelmingly white profession, black attorneys were plagued by discrimination and enduring financial hardship.
“As a black lawyer in Houston, I can tell you that blacks had to wait until all of the white cases were complete before they could take their case before the judge,” said Judge Harrison Gregg, who has worked as an attorney and later a family court judge in the city since the 1970s. In Winston’s days, blacks “sometimes had to wait until 10:30, 11:00 pm before they could present their case to the judges. They had to wait until the white lawyers completed their cases. There were so many things that black lawyers weren’t able to do.”
Blacks attorneys had so much trouble making money that “lawyers, even if they have a law degree, they might end up doing other things than practicing law to make a living,” said Amilcar Shabazz, a historian at UMass Amherst and the author of Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas.
In the early stages of his career, Winston M.C. Dickson was mainly litigating cases in the divorce and probate courts. On June 10, 1919, for example, Dickson litigated Moore v. Moore, winning Mayme Moore custody of her child. Four years later, in American Woodmen v. Smith, he helped ensure that Viola Smith received the $500 that she was legally owed after the death of her husband.
Initially, divorce was “all that black lawyers could do,” said Shabazz. “They were not representing corporations because were no black corporations. So the legal work they provided was going to be wills, probates, small business types of claims. This is what black lawyers did at the time; there is no other kind of law. But that doesn’t mean that Dickson is limited, or he is dumb, or he is incapable. It just means that that is what he is able to do.”
By the 1920s, Winston M.C. Dickson had become something of an early leader among black attorneys in Houston, and “enjoyed quite a good reputation among the lawyers and in the African-American community,” said Gary Lavergne, who mentions Dickson in his book. Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice. In 1920, Dickson was a candidate for the Harris County judgeship, though he didn’t win. The same year, The Dallas Express, a black newspaper, published “Colored Lawyer Wins Legal Battle Court,” singling out Dickson as a “most learned lawyer of the race” who won a case for blacks “over vigorous objections of white attorneys for the plaintiff.” In 1923, the Houston Informer, an influential black newspaper, identified Dickson as president of the city’s Colored Bar Association.
As an octogenarian several decades later, Dickson helped found the Houston Lawyers Association, an advocacy and mentoring organization of black attorneys. “Our purpose has always been to take care of minorities here in the Houston area,” said Judge Gregg, who served as president of the Houston Lawyers Association in 1976–77 and again in 2010–11. “We address voting issues. We have addressed judicial issues and judicial equality. We do what we call a report card on minorities at white law firms.”
A man seemingly averse to change, Dickson lived in the same house on Orange Street in Houston’s Fifth Ward from at least 1930 until his death thirty years later. “Houston was very segregated. In fact, you had all blacks in the Fourth and Fifth Wards. They wouldn’t let black police officers arrest whites, and they had black police officers only patrol black areas,” said Judge Gregg. Largely blighted today as a sea of empty lots nestled beneath the glistening skyscrapers of downtown Houston, the Fifth Ward was devastated by the construction of the I-10 and I-69 freeways, which cut across the heart of the neighborhood.
Winston M.C. Dickson is most vividly remembered for his involvement in the struggle for higher education access for African-Americans in Texas, though it also remains the most controversial aspect of his long career in Houston. Through the 1940s, the seriously segregated state of Texas had no black graduate schools, so all aspiring black attorneys were educated out-of-state. “The state of Texas would pay you to leave in the summers and work on your masters, because you couldn’t get a masters in Texas during that time if you were black,” said Bobbie Bradford, the Pomona music professor. “But, they would give a subsidy to go out-of-state — it was insane. A lot of my high school instructors did this: one of my English teachers graduated from Northwestern, one of the history teachers went to USC.”
In 1946, a young mailman named Heman Merion Sweatt applied to the UT Austin law school, and immediately sued Theophilus Painter, the college’s president, after he was denied admission on the basis of his race. This set the stage for Sweatt v. Painter, a major Supreme Court case litigated by Thurgood Marshall in 1950 that proved influential in Brown v. Board’s destruction of “separate but equal” four years later.
When Heman Sweatt first appealed to Texas’s Court of Civil Appeals, the Court gave Painter and the state of Texas an ultimatum: they could create a black law school for Sweatt within 60 days, or Sweatt would automatically be admitted to UT Austin’s law school.
Governor Coke Stevenson approached the president of Prairie View A&M, an African-American land-grant university in the mold of Texas A&M, to assess the feasibility of setting up this makeshift law school. Banks travelled to Houston to gauge the interest of Winston M.C. Dickson and his law partner in making their Milam Street office and facilities available as the makeshift Prairie View A&M Law School; Dickson would serve as the Dean. The two partners agreed, at least temporary placating the wishes of white segregationists in the state.
In the Houston Informer, Dickson was pilloried: “These men, being lawyers, would be presumed to have known that any participation in the scheme to set up this makeshift law school could not help but be used by whites to escape meeting their obligation to establish a full-fledged law school for Negroes.”
While the makeshift Prairie View A&M Law School never materialized, and Heman Sweatt eventually won admission to the UT Austin law school, why would Dickson have agreed to help set up this segregated institution that was cobbled together at the last minute?
“Prairie View’s makeshift arrangement was not credible,” said Shabazz, “and I think that they might have been playing Dickson and some of these others by saying ‘look, this is temporary, and we are going to make something legitimate happen, but until we do, we want to get started now. Here’s the money — we’re going to pay you — but can you come on and help us get something going?’”
Houston was divided between integrationists who demanded complete integration of all schools immediately, and activists more keen on setting up equal institutions for African-Americans. “Dickson wasn’t a Booker T. Washington-type endorsing complete segregation, but you can’t be a 100% integrationist at a time when the power structure is 100% segregation,” Shabazz added. “You can be that, but you aren’t going to get very far in the world. You’re going to be off in a little bubble, or you’re an intellectual like [W.E.B] Du Bois up in Massachusetts or New York who just pontificates on this kind of thing.”
In hindsight, Dickson clearly made the wrong call. “It’s easy to say that he was something of an accommodationist, but back then, there were many African-Americans who were welcoming some attempt by the state to create a law school for blacks in the first place,” said Gary Lavergne.
Before passing from a heart attack in November 1959, Winston M.C. Dickson lived a remarkable life on just about any metric. Pomona College has long forgotten that Dickson’s graduation in 1904 marked the first time that an African-American had graduated from any college in Southern California. The occasion was perceived as so monumental at the time that the LA Times sent a reporter to cover Pomona’s graduation activities, commending Dickson on the “Mark Made By This Negro,” as the article was headlined.
Until Dr. Willie Benton Boone enrolled at Pomona in 1958 in a cohort that included three other African-Americans, black students were virtually non-existent on campus. Between Dickson and Dr. Boone, at the very least, two African-Americans graduated from Pomona: Arthur Maurice Williams in 1919, and his daughter Eileen Williams in 1948. The college exchange program with Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville, “gave Pomona cover from recruiting black students in the 1940s and 1950s,” said Lorn Foster.
Winston M.C. Dickson was born into a world that fundamentally did not value his body, did not value whether he got an education, and certainly does not value his memory. As a black man, the degrading Jim Crow South was not constructed for a man like Dickson to leave the fields of Crockett and education himself at the likes of Tillitson College, Pomona, Harvard, and Boston University. Dickson must have known that law would yield little financial stability for him, but he never left the law profession — as did some of his black peers. In a callous world, Winston M.C. Dickson found his way to a life of dignity and purpose.
“One of the things I admire Mr. Dickson for is that here is someone who goes to Harvard and who chooses to go down to a place like Houston, in the Old Confederacy,” said Lavergne. “He didn’t have white clients, he served the African-American community, and he could have stayed up North, he could have stayed in Boston, he could have gone to New York, and probably enjoyed a much higher standard of living. Here’s an African-American attorney practicing law in the Old Confederacy at a time when there’s still lynching going on.”
When Stanford discovered in 1995 that a black man named Ernest Houston Johnson had graduated from the college in 1891, it replaced the rotting headstone at his gravesite, and named a scholarship program in his honor. The Black Studies Department at Amherst awards a senior prize in honor of Edward Jones, its first African-American graduate. At Williams, the first black graduate has a fellowship for aspiring minority college professors named for him. Yet, at Pomona, while everything from buildings to benches to steps are named after various alums, there is nothing memorializing the life of Winston M.C. Dickson, save musty yearbooks gathering dust in the basement of Sumner Hall.
On November 17, students of marginalized identities at Pomona issued a set of demands to President David Oxtoby, highlighting the extent to which greater resources are needed to adequately support them. As TSL reported, Oxtoby has indicated a desire to create a resource center on campus for first-generation and undocumented students. A first generation student himself, Dickson used his education to become a better democratic citizen, to fight on behalf of Houston’s growing black population forced to fend for themselves in the white-washed judicial system. Why shouldn’t this resource center bear the name of Winston M.C. Dickson, a daring mind if there’s ever been one?
In 1911, the same year he established his law practice in Houston, Dickson was given the honors of delivering a speech to commemorate the 48th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Look around us and see who are those who are succeeding permanently,” he told the crowd. “They are those who are trusted because proven trustworthy, they are those who are served by others because themselves serving and willing to serve, those made leaders because willing themselves to follow. Let each man, therefore, look to himself, for as the individual or the majority of individuals, so the race.”
The Pomona College gates ask one simple thing of students, that “they only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind.” Winston M.C. Dickson did his part. Will Pomona do its part to honor his legacy?
This article appears in an abridged version. The full article can be accessed on Medium.