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Mon May 29 08:53:09 MDT 2000
New York Times, May 29, 2000
At 102, a First Author Recalls Slave Relatives
By DINITIA SMITH
In the annals of publishing, few people have had to wait as long as George
Dawson to see their name on a book jacket. Mr. Dawson is 102. But then he
didn't begin to read until he was 98.
This year, Mr. Dawson, who now reads at about a fourth- grade level, and
Richard Glaubman, a 50-year-old elementary schoolteacher from Washington
State, published "Life Is So Good" (Random House), based on Mr. Dawson's
account of life growing up in East Texas among relatives who had been
slaves. Both are listed as authors. The story is told partly in Mr.
Dawson's words as recorded by Mr. Glaubman.
"Life Is So Good" is an unusual history of a segment of black American life
in the 20's and 30's, propelled by Mr. Dawson's acute powers of
observation. It is about a dangerous era when the Klan was on the rise,
lynchings were common and it was unsafe even for a black baseball team to
beat a white team.
A few weeks ago Mr. Dawson visited New York City for the first time from
Dallas where he lives, accompanied by his 65-year-old son, George Jr., a
retired civilian communications employee of the Army, and Mr. Glaubman.
There was a party at the Century Club. There was a book signing at a Barnes
& Noble branch, a ride on the Staten Island ferry and the rare experience
of room service at the hotel, with Mr. Dawson signing his name for it.
He moved through it all at a good pace; people don't have to slow their
stride for him. Mr. Dawson hasn't lost any hair to baldness, doesn't have
false teeth, wears reading glasses only sometimes. And although he has some
hearing loss from working with heavy machinery in a dairy, he gets by
without a hearing aid. He has never spent a night in a hospital. These days
he sits rather quietly, politely answering questions.
"I lived right. Ate right, whatever I wanted to. Never smoked," Mr. Dawson
said over breakfast of toast with jam.
And the last time he had a drink, he said "was in 1928." He went on: "I
didn't love it.
I just did it because the boys I was with were doing it."
But as interesting as longevity is, "Life Is So Good" presents perhaps a
more interesting story, one fashioned from on-the-ground insight into the
strategies that many black people devised to survive the perils of life in
the South at the turn of the century.
For much of his life, because he could not read or write, Mr. Dawson didn't
live by the written calendar, so dates are sparse.
He was born in a log cabin in Marshall, Tex. His parents were farmers;
unlike many blacks of the rural South who were sharecroppers, they owned
their own hardscrabble piece of land. At age 10, Mr. Dawson witnessed the
lynching of a 17-year-old friend, Pete, who was accused of raping a white
The day of the lynching his father gave him a piece of advice that endured.
"His suffering is over, son," he said, according to the book. "Some of
those white folks was mean and nasty. Some are just scared. It doesn't
matter. You have no right to judge another human being."
Since then, Mr. Dawson has wasted no time with bitterness, he said.
According to the book, the girl's baby was born white, but, as Mr. Dawson
remembered it, "No one said nothing." He states in the book: "I guess by
then most folks, white folks anyway, had all forgotten. I didn't forget."
Mr. Dawson didn't go to school because he worked from the age of 4
alongside his paternal grandmother and great-grandmother, combing cotton
and pressing sugar cane. They taught him slave songs, which he can still
sing, and told him stories.
His grandmother, Charity, recounted the day when she was young and her
master, "Mr. Lester," told his slaves they were free.
Some were afraid to leave, others remained as sharecroppers. But, as Mr.
Dawson relates, they were enslaved again, accumulating debt at the
plantation store because they couldn't count. Eventually Charity's family
enlisted the help of a field hand, Tom, who knew numbers. The family worked
off its debt, and Tom married Charity.
When Mr. Dawson was 12, his father, Harrison, had to hire him out to a
white farmer for $1.50 a month, he wrote.
As a young man he built levees for 50 cents a day, worked in a sawmill and
laid railroad tracks. He often worked hungry.
The book spins out his continuing adventures. He rode the rails, landing in
Mexico in 1923, astounded to discover that a black man could be served
alongside whites. He pitched on a Negro baseball team. In 1926, while
breaking wild horses on a farm in the Texas Panhandle, he encountered a
16-year-old girl, Elzenia.
"I was a rough boy," he said. "I was just clowning, that's all. That bought
her." Elzenia became his wife. She died about 15 years ago, he said.
All along, Mr. Dawson said, he pretended he could read. He signed his name
with an x. He would make his seven children read their homework aloud to him.
His son George said he never knew his father could not read or write until
he was in the Navy in Korea and Vietnam and did not get letters from him.
And because Mr. Dawson could not write, he was unable to file for promotion
in his job at the dairy.
Nonetheless, all his children attended college. Two are now deceased.
Surviving, besides George, are Amelia Parks, 72, who worked in a medical
library until she retired; Dorothy Jiles, 64, a kindergarten worker;
Cecelia Ervin, 60, a homemaker; and Darrel, 51, a manager for the United
After Elzenia died, Mr. Dawson married three more times, all women he met
in church and all of whom have died. "I had four good wives," he said. "I
didn't fuss with them. We sit down and agree with each other." One reason
that he hasn't saved money, he said, is that he wanted to give each a
After Mr. Dawson retired from his dairy job in the late 60's, he continued
working, mostly as a gardener. In the book he describes the day the woman
who was employing him brought him lunch to eat on the back porch with her
dogs. He was hungry, he said, but he refused to eat.
"I am a human being," he told her, according to the book. Quiet refusal
could be said to be Mr. Dawson's modus operandi.
Finally, at 90, he retired for good. He received $520 a month in Social
Security. His house was dilapidated and leaked. He continued to care for
himself. His house was so ridden with mice they invaded his groceries. He
solved the problem by putting a potato on the floor for them to eat, which
stopped their bothering him.
When he was 98 he heard about the adult literacy class at the Lincoln
Instructional Center, in his old neighborhood high school, and signed up.
"I learned to read my ABC's in two days -- I was in a hurry," he said.
His teacher was Carl Henry, who came out of retirement from the school
system to work at the center. "It took him about six months to learn how to
read simple words," Mr. Henry said. Mr. Dawson now reads his Bible every day.
"I wanted to teach him to print," Mr. Henry remembered. But Mr. Dawson
insisted on learning cursive, which was harder.
In 1998, Larry Bingham, a columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote
an article about Mr. Dawson. It was syndicated in The Seattle Times, and
Mr. Glaubman spotted it. "I thought, 'How does he have so much courage to
start?' " Mr. Glaubman said. It could make an inspirational story for his
students, he thought. Mr. Glaubman had lost his father the year before, he
said in the book, and felt an emptiness.
Mr. Glaubman decided to visit Mr. Dawson, and Mr. Dawson agreed to let him
write a book.
While he was researching and writing, he often stayed at Mr. Dawson's
house. The two alternated cooking and in the evenings played dominoes and
watched "Jeopardy." At first Mr. Glaubman wrote a children's book. But he
realized he had more to say, so he began an adult version.
As Mr. Glaubman wrote, he was conscious of Mr. Dawson's mortality. "You
think, 'You've got to finish before he dies,' " he said.
Mr. Glaubman's children's book was turned down uniformly by publishers. But
an editor put him in touch with an agent, Harriet Wasserman. Ms. Wasserman
read the adult version and quickly sold it to Random House. Mr. Glaubman
won't reveal the advance but described it as quite decent. The initial
printing was 100,000 copies.
At first, Mr. Dawson wanted to use his half of the advance to renovate his
But the house was in such disrepair that it has been torn down. He is
building a new one and has moved in with George temporarily .
For years, Mr. Dawson's routine has been unvaried.
Up at 5 a.m., he has a cup of hot chocolate, two pieces of bread and a
glass of hot water. When he was living in his own house, he was picked up
by Mr. Henry each morning and driven to literacy class.
Inevitably, the question of mortality lingers in the air. But Mr. Dawson
said he was not afraid of death. "I want to rest," he said. "I have no
fear, no worry." When death finally comes, he added, he knows that he will
finally be in a place that he calls "Gloryland."
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