Friday, March 6, 2020

Our Towne Bethlehem March 2020: James H. Dickson

Yes, I am terrible and missed February, Black History Month.  But, you know, African Americans make history every month, including in Bethlehem.  

And please note that neither of the men pictured here are James Dickson.  I do not have a picture of him, but like to imagine he looks like one of these handsome gentlemen. Both daguerreotypes date to about the time Dickson married. 

Unidentified man. Library of Congress
Lately, I’ve been researching James Dickson. Dickson lived in the hamlet of Slingerlands just about his whole life, from about 1850 until his death in 1907. He came to my attention in connection with John I. Slingerland and the work I’ve been doing regarding the Slingerland Family Burial Vault project. I’ve been writing first person monologues for the Friends of the Vault reenactment fundraiser, and trying to find the voice of James Dickson.*

Dickson’s story touches on matters of race and wealth and privilege.  You see Dickson was a black American living in a rural, white community around the time of the Civil War and beyond.  Allow me to share some of the facts that I know about Dickson, and perhaps together we can weave and/or imagine his story.

I first encountered him in the 1850 U.S. Census while looking for John I. Slingerland**.  Head of household is John I. Slingerland (age 46, male, white, farmer, real estate worth $20,000, born in N.Y.) Below him is his second wife Sarah (more commonly known as Sally) age 35. Then his children ranging from age 23 to age 6: John, Betsy, Maria, Elizabeth, William. Then is John Hay age 23.  All of these folks have a W under the race column.  Then in the same household is James Dixson, age 16, a farmer with a prominent B after his name.  Now the questions begin.

Why did John I. take him in?  Was it for routine labor on the farm? Was it scandalous – an illegitimate son perhaps?  Was it related to John I.’s anti-slavery sentiments? Was it even related to the fact that John I’s father, also John, owned slaves on this self-same property?  The town of Bethlehem has a record book that confirms that John Slingerland senior manumitted and set free a man named Sam on April 17, 1818 and a man named Thomas Jackson on June 21, 1824.  (Emancipation in New York was not complete until 1827.)
Unidentified man. Library of Congress.

I’ve read John I.’s account book from 1853 to1855 and while he refers to Jack (aka James Dickson) often, I don’t believe Jack was employed as a laborer.  There are many entries like this one dated January 30, 1854 “Cash for Jacks gloves” or my favorite from March 24, 1855 “Cash to Jack Lost on bet.” And this one surely has a story behind it July 3, 1855 “Cash to Jack he Whent to N York and Got Robed.”

In the same journal there are pages of entries regarding hired hands such as Marton the Dutchman, Mike the Irishman and Sam Pit. The entries include details about when their work was complete and their accounts settled. Also included was when work was missed as in these entries about Sam Pitt. “August 26, 1854 1 day whent fishing” and “June 2, 1855 lost 1 day to go to Guilderland you and your wife to show your new coat” Then there is this entry from August 26, 1854 tying Dickson and Pitt together, but makes us uncomfortable today to read “1855 June 27 Cash to Sam Pit he Went with Jack to Albany to See Darkies Dance.”

Also supporting the fact that Dickson was more than a hired hand is this entry “Marton the Dutchman began to work the 17th of March 1853 for 7 ½ months at 13 Dollars per month and is to pay Jack one and a half Dollars per month for house rent.”  Dickson must have occupied his own house. There are also entries where Dickson pays John I. for agricultural items, like loads of hay, bushels of rye and barrels of potatoes.  The hay suggests that he was keeping horses or maybe a dairy cow.
The house rent and loads of hay leads me to the fact that John I. specifically listed James Dickson in his last will and testament dated October 22, 1861.  Here’s an excerpt:
 “I give devise and bequeath to the colored man James Dixon and to his heirs and assigns forever, all that certain lot and house situate in the town of Bethlehem County of Albany bounded on the north by the land of James B. Wands and west by the Oliver Road and on the South and east by the fence which now encloses said lot, continuing about three fourths of an acre of land.”

Searching for more facts about James Dickson, I turned to the newspaper websites and promptly turned up a stark example of mid-19th century racism.  Versions of the article were carried in several papers in the spring of 1857. Referred to as Jack Slingerland, Dickson was described as a “pure blooded African” “a sort of protégé of Hon. John I. Slingerland” and “black as the ace of spades.” The heart of the story was that he eloped with Sarah England, who is described as the “white daughter of a neighbor” and a “buxom lass”.  Also noted was “Jack is 23, the young lady 17.”  Reading these descriptions, one must remember that this was the time in American history when the nation was ramping up towards the Civil War. Matters of race and color, freedom and justice were brewing and stirring all over the country.

More searching turns up James Dickson’s obituary published in the Altamont Enterprise February 1,1907.  It is a much more positive article. “No man in this community was better known or more respected…for thirty-seven years he was employed by the Hon. Wm. H. Slingerland as general manager and was always faithful and honest.  He is survived by his widow and one son.”  Did you catch the part about his widow?  I like the fact that James and Sarah Dickson’s marriage outlasted the naysayers, and the nasty newspaper articles about their elopement. They were married almost 50 years.  The obituary makes no comment about the color of Dickson’s skin.

Other tidbits about Dickson turn up in the papers.  Here’s one from the Enterprise dated February 21, 1902 “We are indebted to James Dickson, better known as “Jack,” for his kindness in running the snow plough through the heavy snow-fall Tuesday morning.”  Or this one from April 19, 1895, “Mr. Theodore Halsdorf, who sprained his ankle by the falling of a scaffold on James Dickson’s barn, is still confined to his room.”

Another fact about James Dickson that emerged is that he registered for the draft in 1863 but did not get called up.  Other African Americans from Bethlehem, like Peter Dickson and Samuel Jackson, enlisted and served with the 26th U.S. Colored Troops.  I wonder if Peter and James were cousins.

James and Sarah Dickson and their son George, and grandson George, show up regularly in the U.S. and New York census reports.  James always has a B, Sarah always has a W.  Interestingly their son George is listed with a M for mulatto in 1870 and 1880, but in 1905 when I next can identify him in the census, he is labeled with a W.

These are the facts from primary sources, and per usual they leave more questions than answers.  I like to wonder about James and Sarah’s life in the hamlet of Slingerlands.  I get the impression of a small family living in a community slowly changing from rural to suburban.  There are hints of Sarah’s involvement with the local church, trips to New York City and gardening on their plot of land. I wonder about their interactions with the socially prominent Slingerland family. I wonder how the effects of the social upheaval of the Civil War affected the family.

And finally, I’ll leave you with the last lines of James Dickson obituary.

“Farewell Jack, kind husband and father, faithful servant, good neighbor and true friend – peace to your ashes.”
James Dickson's obituary appeared February 1, 1907 in the Altamont  Enterprise.

Dickson's headstone at Bethlehem Cemetery.  Unfortunately, Sarah Dickson's name and dates were never added.

*Nicknamed Jack, James Dickson’s last name is sometimes spelled Dixon.

** John I. Slingerland (1804-1861) is a scion of the Slingerland family in Bethlehem, a well-to-do landowner and farmer, former U.S. Congressman and N.Y. Assemblyman, Anti-Renter, abolitionist, husband of Elizabeth and then Sally, father of five.

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