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The Last of the Dickersons

It had been almost 70 years since Horace Dickerson walked the family cemetery off North Beckley Station Road that bears his name.

He is 83 now. Born in 1930, he had grown up the youngest of 12 children in a three-room house without electricity, water or plumbing on two acres of land just off Shelbyville Road.

The house was just across from the cemetery where his father's family had been buried in graves marked only by rocks — several of them once slaves or direct descendants of slaves.

His parents and all 11 of his siblings — some born more than 100 years ago — are gone.

"I am," he said, "the last of the Dickersons, at least on my side of the family."

Although no one had been buried in the cemetery in his lifetime, he knew the thread of family history. He had spoken to others about it, including Shirley Dickerson Wright, who had written a personal family history about 11 years ago — and would join him at the cemetery.

The cemetery had been on land owned by a cousin, Effie Adams. Its existence was kept alive in Dickerson oral history through reunions and by the very occasional family visit, even as time and thick clumps of marauding honeysuckle were slowly obscuring it from view.

No one knows how many people are buried at the site; Horace thought maybe 12 to 15. Only three headstones are visible, including one for a person born in 1823.

They were made of cement and added later by his brother Bill to replace the rocks. The three had been saved from the honeysuckle by caring neighbors who mowed the plot without knowing its full story.

Just weeks earlier, while searching for the cemetery — and without realizing it — Horace had walked that two-acre site where he had grown up with his siblings and parents, Walker and Bessie Dickerson, an African-American sharecropper and his wife.

But the old home site — and North Beckley Station Road — had changed since his family had left it in 1944. The remote, rolling farmland then owned by a man named George Beckley, and the railroad junction where workers lived in a cluster of boxcars, had been transformed into a winding, wooded stretch of beautiful homes a quiet distance from the frantic sprawl of Shelbyville Road.

A few of those homes are perched above a man-made lake that had been only a spring when the Dickerson children carried drinking water home from it to their family.

"We had one water bucket with a dipper in it," Horace said. "Everybody who wanted water would come up there, take the dipper, drink out of it and put it back in the bucket."

Horace is a complex, observant, religious man with a quick sense of humor marked by great bursts of laughter. He is at peace with his life, and his fate.

He accepts that the hurts, inequalities and injustices of the very segregated world in which he grew up were of a different time and place.

"It's just the way it was," he says. "It was a way of life."

And this day he was sharing the thread of family history with Wright, the distant cousin and determined historian who knew she could not find the roots of her Dickerson ancestors without first searching for the ancestors of the white family — the Pope family of Louisville's Pope Lick — who had once owned her great-great-great-grandmother.

"Most of our history is in slave owners' wills," she said. "And that's how I proceeded to do it."

Before golf, there was farming

Their family story cuts across more than 200 years of Louisville and Kentucky history and organizations. It includes the nearby development of The Parklands of Floyds Fork — which is now protecting and preserving some areas of Floyds Fork where the Dickersons swam, fished, hunted and lived as slaves. It includes the Filson Historical Society, which will preserve family records.

It also includes Valhalla Golf Club, and by extension the PGA of America, which owns Valhalla and the open field behind the course where the 150-year-old Dickerson Family Cemetery is located.

It's where Horace stood over the graves of his distant family, pushed his hands into his pockets and mulled over a question about his feelings on being there.

"It is something," he finally said. "It's been so long."

He knows little of his parents' personal history other than they lived among a small pocket of families who owned small parcels of land on North Beckley Station Road, and they are related to other Dickersons living in another black settlement on nearby Gilliland Road.

How they first acquired the land — and he suspects it dates to when family slaves were freed — remains a mystery; no records were kept of such transactions.

His sharecropper father knew nothing but work, wanted nothing but work, leading his team of horses to a half-dozen farms along Shelbyville Road to plant corn and cut hay to be pitched by hand up onto wagons. He rejoiced in work and preached it constantly to his children; he had no interest in seeing them go to school.

Horace remembers him returning home in the evening soaked in salty sweat. He doubts his father ever earned more than $600 a year.

"He was a very respected man," he said. "Everybody, white or black, called him Uncle Walker."

Bessie Dickerson had other thoughts on school — even as most of her children dropped out to find that work.

"My mom did not believe in you missing a day of school, even if you were sick," Horace said. "She'd tell you to go up there and lay on the desk and you still might learn something.

"We didn't go that far in school but she insisted on us going every day when we did. We never missed a day. We always got certificates for personal attendance."

Already dirt poor, the last of the Dickerson children grew up during the thick of the Depression. They had a big garden on the two acres, raised chickens and milked three cows. In the winter Walker butchered hogs for themselves and the neighbors.

"But we never missed a meal," Horace said. "Wasn't anybody always telling you that you were poor. We didn't know any other life. That was the only one we knew."

Bessie Dickerson tended the garden, canned the goods from there, and also tended her children; they were never handed off to others to be watched. She would occasionally help bring in a crop of hay, jumping up and down on the wagon to knock it flat after her husband and children pitched it up there.

She milked the cows and earned a little money making butter to sell and washing clothes for 30 years for the Frank Beckley family who owned the 269 acres that would, in part, become Valhalla.

Getting Bessie Dickerson enough water to wash the clothes was another adventure.

"My father had a Model A," said Horace. "There was a place up there at Factory Lane and Old Henry Road and he could drive down into the creek. And he had milk cans. And he would go up there and drive down in the water and fill those milk cans full … and that's what my Mom used to wash with."

Access to schools difficult

Every Sunday the family would attend St. Luke Baptist Church farther out Shelbyville Road, Walker first loading his family in a buggy and then in an old Model T — sometimes picking up other parishioners along the way. They always dressed in their Sunday clothes — suits and dresses passed down from child to child.

The family would stay all day on the church grounds, the children playing in the nearby fields and eating a meal their mother had prepared the night before, then attending evening service.

The family didn't get electricity until 1937; Horace remembers the skinny light pole that brought it to their house.

He would be the only one of the six Dickerson boys to finish high school. He first attended the all-black Dorsey School in Middletown and then was bused to the all-black Lincoln Institute near Simpsonville, now the Whitney Young Job Corps Center.

"They wouldn't let us go to the white schools," he said, "and there was one right there in Middletown."

He attended Dorsey School courtesy of a sister, Artie — one of the two Dickerson girls able to go to college — who taught at the school.

"Sometimes there were seven or eight of us in her car," he said. "She had to do that because there wasn't enough people at Dorsey … So she picked up a lot of children all around there and took them to school so she could hold her job."

The other Dickerson children had to walk several miles in all seasons to the Rosenwald School in Eastwood, crossing the old cement bridge along two-lane Shelbyville Road at Floyds Fork and then down Gilliland Road, and occasionally hearing taunts from the white kids riding past on buses.

The wooden shell of the old school — one of 168 built in Kentucky early in the 20th century by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to educate black children — still stands in Eastwood, and attempts are being made to preserve it.

On the few days their father didn't put them to work, the Dickerson boys might fish or hunt along Floyds Fork, which flowed through what is now Valhalla at the foot of the steep bank behind their property.

Some days they would walk or catch a ride to the old Grosscurth Distillery, further down Floyds Fork on what's now The Parklands of Floyds Fork property, where the fishing would be better.

Beginning work at age 12

Warming to the task, Horace told stories of the black Boy Scout camp located in the woods along the river farther down North Beckley Station Road, and of Murphy's Store at the corner of North Beckley Station Road and Shelbyville Road, where bologna was sliced with a knife, cigarettes were 13 cents a pack, and you could buy a single smoke for a penny.

He began working away from home at age 12, walking several miles to an old farmhouse at what's now the Frank Otte Nursery at 12902 Shelbyville Road. He moved on to factory and construction jobs, becoming a foreman in just over a year, and using shovel and pick to help build the Watterson Expressway and the Kentucky State Fairgrounds.

In the late 1940s he worked cleaning kitchens for the Kentucky Military Institute, which held classes in Florida as well as Kentucky.

The all-black cleaning staffs traveled in a separate bus and, as they traveled south, were given tin cans to use for urinals at the Kentucky-Tennessee border; there were no restrooms for blacks all the way to Florida.

Horace was drafted into the Army in February 1952, serving in Germany, where he became a teacher helping other soldiers — white and black — achieve a fifth-grade level education in classes lasting nine weeks.

He came home and began driving big dump trucks for his brother, eventually buying several of his own to haul rock and gravel. He bought his current truck when he was 70 — paying $1,850 a month for five years.

"I'm not going to retire," he said, echoing the words of his father. "When I find it in the Scripture, then I'll retire."

He married his wife, Merrelene Dickerson, in 1959. She taught school at Ballard High School and Newburg Middle School for more than 30 years.

She also understood the thread of family. As a teacher she made it a point to introduce her Newburg students to the larger Louisville world of art, theater and music. She was the subject of a 1987 Courier-Journal story when, while taking 65 Newburg Middle School students to a sit-down meal at Holiday Inn Southeast dressed in their holiday best to teach them dining manners, etiquette and the art of calculating tips, a stranger impressed by her efforts paid for the entire meal.

"She really branched out and took these children to places where black folks didn't ordinarily go, or weren't allowed to go," Dickerson said.

Merrelene Dickerson also organized community travel cruises, taking Horace and other adults on trips to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, educating a larger, older audience on life beyond Louisville. She died in 2005 after 46 years of marriage.

Uncovering the family's past

It was the thread of her family connection that led Horace to family historian Shirley Dickerson Wright. His wife's sister was Laverne Carter, another excellent teacher who encouraged African-American children and adults to learn of their history.

Carter encouraged Wright, who did custodial work in the Jefferson County school system for 30 years, to trace her family.

"She kept asking me to do it," said Wright. "She said I needed to do it. And so one day I just started doing it. And I got hooked."

She began the research with just a few of her family names, a lingering oral history. That necessarily led her over many years to make more than 100 trips to Frankfort to search the wills of the slave owners — the only documented history of her people. That led her to the will of a man named John Pope, who wrote, in part, of the Kentucky land he owned in the early 1800s, and the stream that ran through it, apparently named for his family:

"… my farm and my tract of land whereon I now live on the waters of Pope Lick Run, and Chenoweth Run, waters of Floyds Fork about one mile and a half eastwardly of Middletown ... that lies on the South side and adjoining the Shelbyville & Louisville Turnpike road."

The will also mentioned a slave Pope owned named Lucy who was born in 1807. She took the name Lucy Pope, and, after she married, became Lucy Pope Lewis.

As Wright pursued the wills of the slave owners — who would pass on their slaves to their children to ensure they wouldn't be sold again — she learned Lucy Pope Lewis had eight children, including a daughter, Letitia.

Letitia married a man named John Dickerson — apparently the son of a union between a white Floyds Fork landowner and his slave. According to the 1860 census, John and Letitia Dickerson were living in Jefferson County on Beckley Station Road.

The fourth son of their marriage was Walker Dickerson, born on the Fourth of July in 1881. He married Bessie Graves. They had 12 children — the youngest being a Horace Dickerson born in 1930.

Horace's parents and 10 of his 11 siblings are buried in another black cemetery off Flat Rock Road (the other one is in Eastern Cemetery); Walker died in 1950 and Bessie in 1962.

His brother Bill also fashioned those cement family tombstones, all lined up in a row near the road. Their graves were often dug by family, neighbors and friends.

The Dickersons in the forgotten cemetery off North Beckley Station Road are all from Walker Dickerson's side of the family; the three remaining headstones are dedicated to a John, Pinkie and Wilson Dickerson. Their birth dates range from 1823 to 1861, but Horace said no one is sure if Bill got them exactly right.

What is known is that the once forgotten cemetery will now be preserved and protected.

Valhalla and PGA General Manager Keith Reese, who only recently learned of the cemetery's existence, said he would make sure it would be examined, protected and perhaps fenced.

He said the Dickerson family would be more than welcome to visit it at any time.

This story ran origianlly in the Courier-Journal on May 11, 2014. Click here to read the story there.

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.

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