Today, when Armendia Dixon works weekly with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mentorship program that she runs at Meadville Area Middle School, she has the same concerns about her students as other teachers.
Because she is 80, she also has health issues related to the pandemic. Never content to remain passive in the face of challenges, Dixon recently joined several of her colleagues from Crawford Central School District to receive her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
In the late 1960s, a few years after starting an education career that had spanned so far six decades, his concerns were different: Dixon was the first African-American teacher hired to work in the schools. previously white schools in Laurel, Mississippi, his hometown. .
Then she worried about drawing attention to herself and spent time planning different routes to and from school each day.
In a recent interview, Dixon recalled taking on the job that turned out to be “perhaps the worst teaching experience I have ever had in my life.”
As the nation observes Black History Month, Dixon’s experiences serve as a reminder that the subject is more than just a chapter in a textbook – more than something that just happened and certainly not something the country did. can afford to forget.
Integration in Mississippi
After receiving a phone call in the middle of the night from the superintendent telling him to report to the district office, a half-asleep Dixon learned that the Laurel District, like others in the state, had been ordered to fit in after delaying for over a decade. It was the first time she had been admitted to the district central office, which had employed her for nearly five years.
“We have decided that we would like to ask you to be the first… teacher to be involved in this process,” the superintendent told him, using a racial slur common at the time.
Dixon knew that taking such a job could put her in danger, but after discussing it with her parents, she accepted the position, which would allow her to teach at a black school in the morning and spend the afternoon in move the library to another school. , where she and a student would be the only blacks.
“Remember, we fought for what was right for a long time,” Dixon recalls of his parents, “so let us guide you.”
When she showed up to school, Dixon’s new principal greeted her saying that she was not welcome at school.
Dixon recalled the manager’s saying, “I want you to know that you won’t be involved with staff at all. We won’t talk to you. You will not socialize with us in any way. “
“She was quite open. She told me exactly what she was thinking, “Dixon continued,” and I want you to know that she kept her promise. “
Over the next year, Dixon was isolated while working on the preparation of the school’s new library. No student was allowed to visit the room, and even the assigned library assistant avoided talking to her – and also avoided working. The only interaction she remembered was when a white professor walked into the library, sniffing ostentatiously as she walked around the room and came closer and closer to Dixon.
“She spoke – she was the only one who had ever spoken to me – and she said, ‘I feel something! “” Dixon said, pausing. “And I also said something: ‘You must feel because you are the closest to yourself.’
“She ran out of the library,” Dixon said with a laugh. “I think my answer scared her and, of course, it never came back.”
Living the Civil Rights Movement
Dixon grew up in Laurel in the 1940s and 1950s. She was the eighth of 11 children raised by civil rights activists who were part of a burgeoning black middle class struggling to advance in a place that Dixon was. remembered being described years later as “one of the most perfectly isolated cities in America.”
“We had a cross burnt in front of our house,” Dixon recalled in a recent interview. “My God, I can’t think of what went wrong in our town.”
Before her teaching career took her north to Erie in the late 1960s and a few years later to Meadville, Dixon witnessed firsthand in Laurel the major milestones in the birth and growth of the civil rights movement.
On one side of the railroad tracks, Dixon’s parents were visited by Medgar Evers, the NAACP Field Secretary whose murder in 1963 attracted national attention, and many Freedom Riders who traveled through the South. east of Mississippi when they were working to integrate interstate bus travel in the early 1960s.
“Medgar Evers has spent a lot of time with us. He was also the person who taught the Tougaloo Nine, ”Dixon said, recalling the group of Jackson State University students – including his sister Evelyn Pierce – who organized a“ lecture ”to enter the public library of the town reserved for whites. “They were thrown in jail and the dogs were released on them. “
Across town, Sam Bowers, the notorious Imperial wizard convicted of the 1964 murder of three civil rights activists, led up to 10,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan, according to the FBI.
After a year spent as the only black teacher at a white school in Laurel, Dixon moved north to Erie, drawn by the chance to earn more than the $ 200 she received each month as well as the opportunity to work with. of people who would actually talk to him. A few years later, she accepted a job with Crawford Central and moved to Meadville after marrying Harrison Dixon.
Passage to Northwestern Pennsylvania
Over the following decades, she was principal of Meadville Junior High, Meadville Area Senior High and Erie’s Strong Vincent High School; worked as Curriculum and Instructional Director for the Erie School District; received a master’s degree from the University of Edinboro, Pennsylvania and a doctorate from Kent State University; taught in both colleges; and received the Raymond P. Shafer Award for Distinguished Community Service – some of the highlights of a 10 page resume.
Other highlights include a return to Laurel in 2004, where she received a Key to the City and was inducted into her former school’s Hall of Fame. She was even taken to visit the elementary school that she had entered decades earlier.
She was greeted at the door by the manager, a black woman.
“Isn’t that something? She asked, recounting the moment, a hint of wonder in her voice. “After my experience, the school became totally integrated. There has been a big change.
“It’s probably the little something I did,” she added.
Melissa Burnett remembers first discovering Dixon in 1972, when Burnett was in high school and Dixon had just started teaching in Meadville. Burnett didn’t have classes with Dixon, but she couldn’t help but get to know her: Dixon was the only African-American teacher Burnett knew at Crawford Central.
“It was a big deal for me,” Burnett said. “I was very excited.”
Today Burnett is a member of the Crawford Central School Board and, along with Dixon, is an executive of the Meadville Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund Inc. She credits Dixon with modeling the type of community service she aspires to imitate. .
“She gave me the heart and the passion to serve,” said Burnett. “Some people just have this amazing ability and willingness to call for support in the lives of others. She pours into your life in a way that makes you change. She believes in you.
With that belief comes expectations, according to Joe Galbo, who also sits on the board of directors of the MLK Scholarship Fund with the woman he calls “Doc.”
“She was, and continues to be, just a force of nature,” Galbo said this week. “His enthusiasm and passion are contagious.
Even in his 80s, Galbo said, few people can match Dixon’s ability to work and solve problems.
“That’s why when she asks you things, you do them because you know everything she asks you to do, she does six times as much,” Galbo said. “She’s a person who just doesn’t look at the world’s problems and define what the problems are, she rolls up her sleeves and actually goes to solve them.”
Reflecting on the significance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vacation recently, Dixon saw no reason to slow down solving race-related issues.
“I think Dr King saw something when he went to the top of this mountain and I think it’s going to happen,” she said. “I know it looks gloomy now – oh my God it looks so gloomy – but sometimes things have to get gloomy before you can see them any more clearly.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.