The Dickason family: a snapshot of black history and culture in Monroe County – part one

By Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two part story on Becky Crabtree’s work on the black history in Monroe County. Though her work flows deeply through generations, the Dickason family, particularly Dr. Henry Lake Dickason, can be seen as the nexus of her research and writing.

Raeburn Hall, a prominent person in the Dickason story, has historically also been known as Raeburn Dickason, with alternate spellings “Rayburn” and “Raburn.” According to Crabtree, his peers in the slave community used “Raeburn.” I have chosen to honor this earliest tradition.

Becky Crabtree defies simple classification, a statement of logic she would probably appreciate as a high school science teacher. In addition to a long teaching career, she works as an environmental activist, she’s been a candidate for political office, and Becky Crabtree writes. She writes novels. She writes history. Crabtree’s labor as a researcher and her artistry as a writer lead her to appreciate what she can only describe as magic.

In a recent conversation at her kitchen table, Crabtree shared the multilayered narrative of slavery, civil rights, family, and education that culminates in two of her books, and in a lecture she shared this summer through the Monroe County Historical Society, “Uncovering Black History in Monroe County.” When people heard about Crabtree’s work, she found herself the recipient of a treasure trove of historic documents and pieces from scrapbooks.

Becky Crabtree. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode, for RealWV.

“People have different ways of explaining these moments of serendipity,” Crabtree began. “Some say, ‘if you work hard, you make luck.’ I certainly worked hard and things were coming together. Some people say that it’s divine, that you are led and it’s ‘a God thing.’ I don’t know what it is. I call it ‘magic,’ absolute magic when somebody hands you a bag of documents that go along with your research.”

Crabtree’s work has centered on the life and legacy of Dr. Henry Lake Dickason. The life story of the black Monroe County native inspired Crabtree to mine more deeply into the Dickason family story. Through that historic digging, Crabtree discovered some amazing history, much of it forgotten. 

The legacy of Henry Lake Dickason, the first president of Bluefield State College (now Bluefield State University) brought her into conversation and friendship with William B. Robertson. Robertson, a black man who grew up in the segregated America of the mid twentieth century, became an advisor to a governor of Virginia, and to five U.S. presidents, and he always listed Dickason as the greatest inspiration in his life, next to his mother.

“Because there are voices not heard, and because there are things people don’t know about, I guess it’s the educator in me that wants to know, that wants to share,” Crabtree said. A rent-to-own home at the base of Peter’s Mountain served as the impetus of Becky Crabtree’s long journey researching and telling the story of Henry Lake Dickason and the Dickason family. 

It was 1980. Crabtree and her husband Roger had one child then, and she commuted each day to McDowell County, where she taught. She and Roger learned from neighbors that their house had once belonged to the Dickason family. Jacob Dickason was a slave owner and farmer who at age sixteen inherited a 700 acre farm his father had acquired from a land grant from the king of England in the late 1700s.

Crabtree reported that she and Roger did not end up buying that house at the base of Peter’s Mountain, but their next home still kept them caught up in the orbit of the Dickason family. “Two kids later and three jobs later, we moved around the mountain a little over a mile and we bought our home on Wilson Mill Road.” Once they were established there, neighbors walked them to the nearby Dickason family cemetery.

According to Crabtree, Jacob Dickason and his wife Betsy are buried in that cemetery. The couple’s fourteen year old son, Jacob, died in a freak hunting accident in 1829, and he was the first person interred there. Beyond the husband, wife, and son, many of the people Jacob Dickason owned– his slaves– are buried there, too.

“What a treasure trove of people are buried there! The history bug hit me real hard, and we went through and wrote down names,” Crabtree said.

She didn’t just write down names, though. Becky Crabtree began something akin to a pilgrimage, racing to discover the stories of the human beings behind those names. Raeburn Hall captured Crabtree’s imagination. Hall would later be known to history as Raeburn Dickason, because of the southern custom of giving slaves the surnames of their owners. Crabtree has documented how Raeburn was for sale at a slave auction—likely in Grey Sulphur near Peterstown, though the location isn’t one hundred percent certain. 

What is historically certain is that Jacob Dickason bought Raeburn Hall. Raeburn was a wagon builder, whose skill would have been a key commodity on a farm or plantation. Raeburn did not want to be sold and sent to the Deep South, where the highest bidder lived. Before the auctioneer could call out, “Sold,” Raeburn Hall actually leapt down off of the selling block, and approached Dickason about purchasing him.

“The bid had gone to fifteen hundred dollars…This man who was up for auction goes up to this sixteen year old and says, ‘If you will raise the bid to buy me, I will pay you the difference.’ Sources say that he [Jacob Dickason] did indeed buy him [Rayburn Hall]. Rayburn became very important in the Dickason story,” Crabtree noted.

Jacob Dickason outlived not only his son Samuel, but also his wife, Betsy. When he died in 1879, Crabtree discovered, he named Raeburn Hall as his executor, and he left his farm to Raeburn and two other former slaves, Lewis and James. Crabtree says that some people speculated that Dickason left his farm to Raeburn, Lewis and James because his son Samuel, his only heir, had died so many years before. Others believed that Lewis and James were Jacob Dickason’s own sons. They and several other former Dickason slaves were listed in birth records and census as “mulatto,” the outdated term once used to describe people who shared both black and white ancestry.

Crabtree’s list of names from the Dickason cemetery bridges the generations: the one and only obelisk marks the grave of William Ross, a veteran of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War. Another marker denotes the final resting place of Sidney Dickason, a World War I veteran who, Crabtree said, brought jazz to France.

William Ross and Raeburn Hall raised produce and shipped it all the way to Bluefield. They used the money they made to pay students’ tuition to the Bluefield Colored Institute, including nine of Ross’s children. One of those children, a son named Guy, earned his teaching certificate in 1895 Guy Dickason fathered a son, Henry Lake, the central figure in Crabtree’s work.

Crabtree assumes Henry Lake and his siblings Bernie and Hattie attended the log cabin school where their father taught. Later, Lake rode a train to Bluefield everyday to attend the Bluefield Colored Institute. While an Ohio State student, he became the national president of Alpha Phi Alpha, the blossoming black fraternity whose members included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Owens, and Thurgood Marshall. Lake would go on to earn advanced degrees from The Ohio State University, and he met, courted, and married Grace Robinson. The couple returned to Lake’s West Virginia home to take teaching positions at his Bluefield alma mater. By this time, Bluefield Colored Institute had become Bluefield State Teachers College.

Henry Lake Dickason became the president of Bluefield State Teachers College in 1936. During his presidency, the school became Bluefield State College, making Dickason the first president of Bluefield State College, now Bluefield State University. Crabtree indicated that a devastating fire broke out at the college, just two weeks into Dickason’s administration.

“There were people in Bluefield’s elite, the white community, who thought he should be removed as president because he couldn’t fundraise. He did not move in the circles of wealthy people in Bluefield who could support the school, so they felt like he wasn’t a good match,” Crabtree noted. “Well, he went to the Legislature.” The House of Delegates retained Dickason as president of BSC, and his work creating new programs in nursing, business, and secretarial curriculum led to a million dollar grant for the school, and helped foster a post World War II boom for the institution.

Henry Lake Dickason believed Bluefield State should be a beacon of education and culture. During his presidency, he brought the Harlem Renaissance to Bluefield by hosting poet Langston Hughes, pianist Count Basie, jazz musician Duke Ellington, and the twelve-year heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Joe Louis.

Becky Crabtree never met Henry Lake Dickason. She and her husband met while students at Bluefield State, making the school incredibly formative for them for both personal and educational reasons. Dickason’s importance to Bluefield State piqued Crabtree’s interest in him, and as she delved into her research, that magic she described touched her life and work. She delved into the Internet looking for online links to Dickason. “Henry Lake Dickason’s name came up in all kinds of places,” Crabtree said. She discovered he earned an honorary doctorate on the same day, in the same ceremony, as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, at West Virginia State, in 1948. “She was the keynote speaker that day, and her topic was civil rights,” Crabtree said with a smile.

Around the same time she made that connection, Crabtree found his name on Amazon— for a music album. To Crabtree’s great surprise, Dickason once recorded an album of Appalachian music, filled with work songs like “John Henry,” chain-gang or “hammer songs,” and spirituals. Of course, Crabtree purchased the album, Work and Pray. “Even though I didn’t meet him, I’ve heard his voice,” she said.

Read, The Dickason family: a snapshot of black history and culture in Monroe County – part two, here.

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