Dr. James Lee Dickey - Maureen Gray
Maureen Gray, a social studies teacher at Taylor High School, has a masters degree in American History and Government, was among the six speakers presenting oral histories at the second "Deep in the Heart of Taylor" story night at Taylor's Moody Museum, March 23, 2019.
I've been teaching for 25 years and my husband and I have lived in Taylor for the past 20. When I first started teaching here, a colleague from south Taylor said, "Oh, you need to find out about Dr. Dickey." And I said, "Well, who's Dr. Dickey?" She replied, "Oh, he was just the greatest doctor that ever lived."
So, when I went to grad school, I decided I wanted to learn more about Dr. Dickey. I didn't want to write a thesis that no one would ever look at, so I created an e-book.
Here we go… "There is no way that negro is going to come in the front door of Mustang Creek Country Club, no matter what kind of banquet you have going on."
"Then the Rotary Club and other civic organizations in Taylor will have to take our business elsewhere."
"Tell you what, you let your honoree come and sit at the table and he can give a speech and everything, but he has to come in the back door."
Jerry Pavlik was about to award Dr. James Lee Dickey, an African-American doctor, Citizen of the Year. It is 1953 and African-Americans are still living under Jim Crow, a legal system of segregation.
So, Dr. James Lee Dickey has achieved something in 1953 that no other black man south of the Mason-Dixon line has ever done. He was awarded Citizen of the Year from an all-white community. What did he do that made him so spectacular?
James Lee Dickey was born somewhere west of Waco, the first of nine children. His father was a waiter and his mom took in laundry to help pay bills. They moved to Waco by the time James entered elementary school. He surprised everyone by not only graduating valedictorian of his 1912 class in a colored high school, but went on to attend Huston-Tillotson College in Austin.
He was encouraged to study industrial education and his class of 1916 constructed the school's administration building. Black students were expected to teach other black students since so many children of share croppers could neither read nor write nor handle basic math. Upon graduation, he had a job lined up teaching industrial arts in Marlin, just east of Waco.
While there, James was witness to a horrible lynching in Waco. A wife and mother had been raped and murdered and the sheriff picked up a mentally challenged Jesse Washington who was moseying down the street with blood on his coveralls. For his own safety, he was being moved to Dallas to serve his time, but a mob yanks him out of the wagon, beats him, stabs him, dismembers him and burns him alive, hanging with a chain around his neck.
Dickey starts the school year, teaching at Booker T. Washington School in Marlin and may have been influenced by an African-American physician, Dr. A.L. Hunter, to pursue medicine. He packs up his stuff and heads to Meharry Medical College at the Central Tennessee College in Memphis.
One of the first things he does is meet the love of his life, Magnolia Fowler, a student of education at Fisk University in Memphis. They have goals and a plan for marriage. It's December 1917, James has received a draft notice, but since he is a medical student, he registers with the Medical Education Reserve Corps that allows him to continue his education.
During World War I, African-Americans are being drafted to serve in northern factories. About 1.6 million African-Americans migrate from the South to places like Chicago, Pittsburg and New York. With so many black people going to northern cities, James and Magnolia conclude that there will be a need for black doctors. Their plan is to get married after James completes medical school and move to Chicago.
In the spring of 1921, when they are about to leave for Chicago, James' father joins a Knights of Pythias lodge. During the initiation of tossing him up and catching him on a sheet, he landed on his head, breaking his neck. This leaves Dr. Dickey as the eldest male with 8 siblings left at home. He and Magnolia realize they must stay and help his mom.
While at Tillotson, he met a young woman named Isla Rector-Wright from Taylor (the aunt of Moody Museum board member Ernest Rector). James came to Taylor to see another friend from Mcharry, Dr. J.R. Moore. Since there were limited accommodations allowing African-Americans, he probably stayed in Isla's home.
Dr. Moore's office was on 109 Main Street, but it turned out that he had taken a larger practice in San Antonio. There was no one for a hundred miles to take care of any colored people. The Doke-Stromberg Hospital opposite the Moody home allowed two beds for colored patients, but that was all in Taylor.
Dr. Dickey was hesitant about settling here, thinking Taylor might not be welcoming, but Isla convinced him that it was an opportunity. Magnolia was finishing out her degree, so a year later he brings Magnolia to Taylor and they set up residence at 501 Elliott Street, currently the playground for Saint Mary's Catholic Church. His house has been moved to Burkett Street and is in the process of being restored with help from Preservation Texas.
There hasn't been an African-American doctor in town for two and a half years and there is lots of syphilis, tuberculosis and infant mortality. He became one of the founders of the tuberculosis board for colored patients in Wimberley.
During his first year, there was a massive flood that closed roads. Dr. Dickey put on his strong boots and crossed through the mud to care for his patients south of town.
In 1934-35, there was a typhus epidemic, especially affecting the African-American kids on the south side of town. It was during the Great Depression and if there was a hiring choice, a job went to the white guy. So, families couldn't pay the $1.35 a month to get running water. Children, instead, brought water in buckets from the creek that was full of refuse.
Dr. Dickey convinced the City to let him convert an eight-room house of ill repute on Bland Street into a clinic. After the epidemic, he convinced the City to let him keep it as the Dickey Clinic for treating the African-Americans.
Share cropping was eliminated with the New Deal and colored share croppers moved their shacks and dumped them in the Avery addition of south Taylor. There was no running water, no electricity, no toilets and living conditions were horrible. If you haven't had a bath for a few months, you're going to be filthy and smelly and you're going to be judged. Former mayor, Don Hill, said that up until 1982, outhouses were still being used on the south side of town.
Dr. Dickey was an accommodationist, a follower of Booker T. Washington who worked with the white community. Dickey told the City that if it brings water and sewer to the south side, there would be less stinking people doing work for you - everything will be better for you all. It took a couple of years, but the City installed a faucet (fire hydrant) every five blocks for the kids to fill their water buckets.
He also convinced the City the juvenile delinquency on the south side was due to boredom. With help from Dr. Doke and many others, Robinson Park was created.
Dr. Dickey founded the Negro Chamber of Commerce, with Magnolia as an auxiliary. They were able to create a community center, now called the Dickey-Givens Community Center.
Regarding Blackshear/O.L. Price school, Dickey told the City that it needed desks and more than one light bulb and there were no plugs. The City replied that "experience tells us that if we put night things over there at Blackshear/O.L. Price, the kids are going to vandalize them." Dickey pulled out an exhibit, a desk with the initials DM carved on it. The desk had originally come from the Seventh Street School and the initials were those of Dan Moody. Needless to say, the City of Taylor provided new desks and eventually provided a band hall, a choir room, a home economics center and a gymnasium. Of course, a lot of that was being done to keep from integrating the schools.
Dr. Dickey was never militant, never said he would call the NAACP or charge people with violating the constitution. Instead, his accomplishments came from working with the white community. So Taylor's civic organizations chose to honor Dr. James Lee Dickey as Citizen of the Year in 1953.
It was the first time any southern town had honored an African-American. He appeared on two television shows, on radio shows and was interviewed by Time Magazine. The best source of information was a Saturday Evening Post article. One of his most famous sayings was that "I came to Taylor to stay a little while and I ended up doing my life's work."
Note: Dr. Dickey was honored by the Lone Star State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association as General Practitioner of the Year in 1953.