I’d like to tell you a little bit about a man named George Dawson. George was born in 1898 in a dirt-floor cabin in Marshall, Texas. He was the son of a farmer, and both of his grandparents and great-grandparents were African-American slaves. Though freed at the end of the Civil War, they had to stay on the plantation for ten years to work off their debt to their former master’s store. George’s father, Harrison, was three years old when they left. The family walked west and stopped in Marshall because a lumber mill there provided work; they received forty acres of land and a mule from the federal government and started the grueling process of eking out a living. George, the oldest of eight children, began contributing to the family’s survival by age four, combing cotton while his great-grandmother Sylvie made thread with her drop spindle. At age eight, he went to work on a white neighbor’s farm feeding hogs and cattle, and at twelve, he was sent away from home to live and work on a white man’s farm so his wages could help support his family and allow his brothers and sisters to attend Marshall’s colored school. George never got the chance to attend school.
George’s life of hard manual labor hardly stopped for the next half century. When he was twenty-one, he left his family and followed the jobs he could find across North America for the next decade. He picked cotton, cut sugar cane, built Mississippi River levees, pounded spikes and laid rails for railroads from Cincinnati to Canada to California, tamed horses all over the Midwest, loaded barge cargo, and worked in Mexican coffee plantations. In 1928, Dawson settled in Dallas, Texas, where he worked on the railroad and did road crew work for the city. For almost twenty-five years he ran the pasteurizing machines at the Oak Farms Dairy.
During all those years, George raised a family, worked hard, but never had the time or the opportunity for an education, never learned to read. That was, perhaps, the one thing that George wanted most in his life … to learn to read. Fast forward to 1996 …
George was 98 years young when one day a man knocked on his door. The man was a volunteer who told George that the Lincoln Instructional Center, just a few blocks away, was offering adult education courses! FINALLY!!! The opportunity George had wanted for 98 years was knocking on his door! George overcame his initial reluctance to reveal his illiteracy, telling himself, “All your life you’ve wanted to read. Maybe this is why you’re still around.”
On first meeting instructor Carl Henry, a retired teacher, he learned that the oldest student until that time had been a woman in her fifties. George Dawson learned the alphabet in a day and a half, moved from printing to cursive writing, and could write his name within a month. After almost two years he could read at a third-grade level. Inspired by his example, students flocked to the Lincoln Instructional Center and enrollment doubled.
George Dawson’s story ‘went viral’ as we would say today. The Fort Worth Star Telegram wrote an article about Dawson’s one-hundredth birthday celebration and his recent literacy accomplishments. The Associated Press picked up the story and distributed it to newspapers across the country. One such article was read by elementary school teacher Richard Glaubman in Port Townsend, Washington. Glaubman thought Dawson’s story would make an inspirational children’s book, and he phoned Dawson to propose his idea. Dawson was leery at first, having been long ago warned by his father about the trouble that can ensue when whites and Blacks mix. But ultimately, George agreed to meet Glaubman and the two struck up a friendship.
Long story short, after two years of frequent meetings and many late-night trips for George down memory lane, Glaubman realized that George Dawson was more than a children’s book, that his story and that of his ancestors needed to be told in full. And so it happened that in May 2000, George Dawson’s memories were published in a book, Life Is So Good.
I have just downloaded Mr. Dawson’s book to my Kindle and plan to read it this weekend!
Besides describing Dawson’s life and adventures, the book is said to deliver a wrenching history of the life of black people in the South. A Reading Today reviewer stated …
“He recalls the struggles involved in growing up in rural Texas in the early 1900s, where the Ku Klux Klan was very active and where he saw one of his childhood friends lynched for being accused of being with a white girl. All through his life, even into his retirement years, Dawson has experienced prejudice in many forms.”
The opening scene in his book is one he lived through at age ten when he saw one of his friends lynched … hung to death from a tree by a local sheriff and a band of white supremacists, after falsely being accused of raping a white woman. Ten years old when he witnessed this! I cannot even imagine … can you?
Anyway, George Dawson’s memoir has withstood the test of time. He appeared on Oprah and was featured in People magazine. He told his story in the June 2001 issue of the inspirational magazine Guideposts. Sadly, George didn’t live long thereafter and died on July 5th, 2001, at the age of 103. After his death, Carroll Independent School District named a middle school after him in Southlake, Texas. And that might be the end of this story except …
That same school district that named a school for him has now banned his book. They claim that it contains “inappropriate content.” The district has thus far declined to specify which parts they found inappropriate but let me take a wild guess: the parts that have to do with Jim Crow, lynchings, white supremacy, and in general the racial abuse Black people have been subjected to for centuries all the way up to today. Let’s not allow our children to know how inhumanely white people have treated all humans who didn’t look and believe exactly as they did. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Mr. Dawson’s great grandson, Chris Irvin said that he was confused and hurt by Carroll ISD’s move, considering he and his family have visited the school at least five times for a reading of “Life is So Good.”
“That’s hurtful. You take away the bad and the ugly, and you only talk about the good, that doesn’t add up. Black history is American history. You can’t have one without the other. I can’t go to your history and tell you, ‘hey x that out of your life, that didn’t happen.'”
The attempts to bury and whitewash our history, our real history, must not be allowed to succeed. It is a slap in the face to every Black person in this country. Their story must be told! IT MUST!!! George Dawson’s story MUST be heard, it must be told and retold! Otherwise … how can we ever do better???
I hope you’ll take just a couple of minutes to watch this brief video about the life and times of George Dawson. Oh, and make sure you have a box of tissues at hand.