Dawson, George 1898-2001
DAWSON, George 1898-2001
Born January 19, 1898, near Marshall, TX; died of a stroke July 5, 2001, in Dallas, TX; son of Harrison Dawson; married Elzenia, 1926; three subsequent marriages; children: George, Jr., Darrell, Amelia Parks, Dorothy Jiles, Cecelia Harper. Education: Attended Lincoln Instructional Center adult education center, Dallas, TX, 1996-2001.
Farm laborer, railroad worker, sawmill worker, and dairy farm laborer.
Honorary degrees from two universities.
(With Richard Glaubman) Life Is So Good, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
An audio cassette of Life Is So Good, read by LeVar Burton, was recorded.
George Dawson, who died at age 103 after a stroke, grew up in a dirt-floor cabin near Marshall, Texas. His grandmother Charity and great-grandmother Sylvie were slaves in Mississippi. Though freed at the end of the U.S. Civil War, they had to stay on the plantation for ten years to work off their debt to their former master's store; Dawson'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. Dawson, the oldest of eight children, began contributing to the family's survival by age four, combing cotton while 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.
Dawson's life of hard manual labor hardly stopped for the next half century. When he was twenty-one, he left his family and following 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, broke 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. Retirement from the dairy led him to yard work and gardening around Dallas. Dawson married four times, was widowed two times, and raised seven children.
For almost a century, Dawson never had the time or opportunity for any formal schooling and never learned to read, write, or do math. He was living alone in a small house in south Dallas when in 1996, at the age of ninety-eight, he had a visitor—a literacy volunteer knocked on Dawson's door and told him that the Lincoln Instructional Center, a few blocks away, was offering adult education courses. Dawson learned the alphabet in a day and a half, moved from printing to cursive writing, 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. 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, sharing a polite but stilted conversation. Glaubman flew to Texas to meet Dawson and asked him about writing the children's book. Dawson was hesitant about dealing with a white man, explaining that his father warned of trouble when whites and blacks mixed. Eventually, however, he agreed to the project. He even allowed Glaubman to move in with him during his trips from Port Townsend. Over a two-year period, Dawson told the teacher stories of his life. Glaubman showed Dawson newspapers and magazines from the past century that Dawson had never been able to read, and asked his reactions. The book Life Is So Good, grew out of these stories and discussions. Realizing that there was too much material for just a children's book, Glaubman began an adult version; the children's book was never published.
Besides describing Dawson's life and adventures, the book delivers 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 story of this lynching begins the book. As Christian Science Monitor editor Ron Charles related, "Life Is So Good opens with a scene of blinding cruelty. Ten-year-old Dawson is picking out peppermint candy at the general store when one of his teenage buddies is suddenly accused of raping a white woman. Dawson and his father watch as the sheriff helps a band of hooligans hang the young man from a nearby tree." After the lynching, Dawson's father tells him never to forget that it is never right to judge another human being. They would be the words of wisdom that shaped the rest of Dawson's life, according to the author. Charles concluded, "Dawson's kind and witty attitude is perhaps as valuable as his record of American history, a history largely in the shadows of the 'important' events that shook white America."
This attitude is clear in Dawson's responses to the newspaper articles Glaubman showed him, according to Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright. When asked if he remembered the Scopes trial, Dawson replied that it was "white news" and that "the only 'trials' that colored folks noticed were when a colored man went on trial for raping a white woman." His response to the Great Depression was that times were always tough for black people, and all he remembered was that "white people believed that times were tough." Then, when asked if he had heard of Jackie Robinson, "Dawson shook his head at the naivete of the question: 'I guess Glaubman doesn't know that there ain't no black man in America that was alive then would ever forget Jackie Robinson.'"
Library Journal reviewer Theresa McDevitt wrote, "Dawson … has written a memoir that stands apart from other end-of-the-century texts and from the history generally recorded in textbooks—but is essential to an accurate understanding of this century." Mike Snyder declared in Houston Chronicle that "Life Is So Good is a valuable memoir for many reasons, not the least of which is the lesson it imparts to a post-civil-rights-era reader about 'how things were' for black people through much of the twentieth century."
After the release of Life Is So Good, Dawson appeared on several television shows, including Oprah, Nightline, and Good Morning America, and was the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper profiles. His celebrity brought him the opportunity to be a forceful advocate for literacy programs.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 15, 1999, Vanessa Bush, review of Life Is So Good, p. 753.
Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2000, Ron Charles, "Tuesdays with George," p. 16.
Houston Chronicle, March 19, 2000, Mike Snyder, "Wise and Hard-Won Words; Newly Literate Centenarian Looks Back," p. 13; January 22, 2001, Jim Henderson, "Author, 102, Learned to Read Four Years Ago," p. 1.
Jet, April 17, 2000, "102-Year-Old Texas Man Who Learned to Read at 98 Co-Authored Book, Life Is So Good, "p.19.
Library Journal, January, 2000, Theresa McDevitt, review of Life Is So Good, p. 126.
Modern Maturity, May-June, 2000, Janet Kinosian, "Right Place, Write Time," p. RA1.
New York Times, May 29, 2000, Dinitia Smith, "At 102, a First Author Recalls Slave Relatives," p. B1.
People, April 6, 1998, "Man of Letters," p. 112
Reading Today, February, 2001, review of Life Is So Good, p. 44.
Texas Monthly, February, 2000, Gary Cartwright, "Live and Learn," p. 74.
Economist, July 14, 2002, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2001, Myrna Oliver, "George Dawson; Author Learned to Read at 98," p. B14.
Reading Today, August, 2001, "George Dawson, Who Learned to Read at Age 98 and Became an Author at the Age of 102, Died in July at the Age of 103." p. 28.
Washington Post, July 8, 2001, "George Dawson Dies; Learned to Read at 98, Urged Literacy," p. C6.*