William L. Dickson, African-American minister and community leader, reportedly was born in Grimes County, Texas, about 1865. Conclusive evidence is unavailable, but Mary Dickson, a black woman in Courtney, Grimes County, Texas, reported a thirteen-year-old son named William in the 1880 census. Regardless of his parentage, Dickson was preaching in Nacogdoches in 1894 and was already a force in Texas’s African-American Baptist Church hierarchy. The reverend had a knack for fundraising. A revival meeting in Nacogdoches, featuring Texas evangelist I. Tolliver, reportedly garnered liberal donations from the whites of the area.
By 1897 Dickson held rooms in Dallas and acted as a financial agent for the Texas Baptist Foreign Mission Society. At the same time, he held the ministry at the Gilgal Baptist Church in Gilmer, where he commenced his efforts to establish an orphanage that became the State Colored Orphans’ Home in December 1901. Though originally named for its benefactor and first president, Texas Baptist leader Robert Cooke Buckner, the institution more commonly was called the Dickson Colored Orphan’s Home. Dickson enlisted the financial support of Gilmer’s white community, including Reverend Buckner. He spoke around the state in support of the orphanage, including before the Colored Teachers State Association. When the institution was dedicated in December 1900, Dickson arranged discount fares on the Texas and Pacific Railroad between Dallas and Gilmer. Maintaining the orphanage’s financial viability was Dickson’s primary responsibility until he resigned in 1929.
Dickson operated the orphanage as superintendent and took over the presidency in 1906. The residents of Gilmer and Upshur County initially donated 105 acres to the project. Eventually the institution grew to 650 acres, operated a farm, and at one time supported more than 200 “inmates,” as the residents were known. Dickson served as chief administrator of the privately-funded orphanage until the state assumed responsibility in 1929. A gloomy joint legislative report on the facility’s condition prior to the state taking control found the facility in debt; the children poorly clothed, fed, and educated; and nearly all the buildings in a dilapidated state.
Despite the findings, Dickson continued to enjoy a good reputation in both the black and white community. He assumed the ministry at the El Bethel Baptist Church in Dallas in 1929. Dallas’s first black architect, William Pittman, designed this church. In 1930, perhaps managed by his wife, Inez, the couple’s house at 104 Cliff Avenue headquartered a day nursery for black working women. Representative of the time Dickson spent soliciting funds for his orphanage from sympathetic whites, progressive Dallas mayor J. “Waddy” Tate, a political independent and a crusader against the city’s Citizen’s Association as well as the Ku Klux Klan, appointed the reverend negro mediator and “minister plenipotentiary” to the Dallas black community. Dickson was an active participant in Texas politics and even served on the State Republican Party Executive Committee. He was also a member of the black fraternal organization, Golden Chain of the World. One of his last official acts was the dedication in September 1930 of Lincoln Cemetery, located in south Dallas and said at the time to be the finest black cemetery in the South.
Dickson’s health, however, was failing. His wife and Gilmer friends raised money to bring him back from treatment in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the summer of 1932. A niece later brought him to stay with her in Hearne to spend his final days. He died on March 6, 1933, and was buried in Hearne.