Drusilla E. Tandy Nixon, community activist, clubwoman, and music educator, was born on July 15, 1899, in Toledo, Ohio. She was the daughter of Maud (Grant) Tandy and John Clifford Tandy. Drusilla, wife of physician and civil rights activist Lawrence Aaron Nixon, was fearless in breaking away from the conventional norms of her day. From the time she graduated from Toledo’s predominately-white Waite High School in 1917 to the year she married Lawrence in 1935, Drusilla lived in ten cities, including San Antonio and El Paso. The well-traveled Nixon married three times to older, prominent, and politically-conscious middle-class African-American men.
At Waite High School, Nixon was the only black student in her class and sought every opportunity to prove herself as a leader who was just as capable as her classmates. She wrote for the school magazine, was elected class novelist, and became the orchestra’s violinist and concertmaster. Nixon’s musical talents allowed her to win first place in a national contest for composers. Upon graduation, Drusilla attended the University of Toledo before the school closed due to the 1918 worldwide influenza outbreak. Drusilla was then offered a job with the American Missionary Association in Georgia and was assigned to the elitist First Congregational Church in Atlanta, the largest black congregational church in the state. By January 1920 she resided with her Toledo family while employed as a shipping clerk for a local electrical shop.
In November 1920 Nixon moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and married Webster L. Porter, an attorney and East Tennessee News owner–editor. The Kansas City Advocate wrote that Tandy was “one of the most refined, cultured educated young women,” and Porter “won her heart when she was doing social service work in Raleigh, N.C., but he met her in Atlanta, Ga., where she was also doing some work.” In February 1922 Drusilla gave birth to her first daughter, Dorothy M. L. Porter. Soon thereafter Nixon filed for divorce and accused Porter of battering her during the pregnancy. She moved back with Dorothy to Toledo in 1922.
It is not known when Drusilla moved from Toledo to Philadelphia or when she married and separated from Ernest Ten Eyck Attwell. Between 1907 and 1915, Attwell served in a variety of roles while at Tuskegee Institute, including assistant to Booker T. Washington’s private secretary, Emmett Jay Scott. Nixon formally filed for divorce from Attwell in Ciudad Juárez, México, on November 5, 1935. Days later, on November 14, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, she married Lawrence Nixon. Drusilla first moved to El Paso for eighteen months in October 1929 to alleviate her severe chronic asthma. Dr. Nixon, who challenged the Democratic party’s white primary in Texas between 1924 and 1944, was Drusilla’s physician during her initial tenure in El Paso. In April 1937 Drusilla gave birth to her second daughter, Drusilla Ann Nixon, who was born with Down Syndrome. In January 1939 Lawrence and Drusilla had their second child—Edna Angela Nixon.
In El Paso, Drusilla Nixon served her community by being active in the black women’s club movement, which was committed to uplifting the black community through the collective efforts of women. In 1935 she organized the Black Girl Reserves, emphasizing service, spirit, health, and knowledge. For more than forty years, Nixon was a member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club and at one time served as club president. She opened her home to black servicemen in 1941, which led to the establishment of an El Paso United Service Organization. Nixon was the first black woman to serve on the El Paso YWCA board and as delegate to their 1955 Centennial Celebration in New York City. She also became vice-president of the Church Women United, a member of the El Paso Mental Health Board, and the El Paso Council of Churches. Additionally, she served as St. James Myrtle United Methodist Church choir director and was active in their United Methodist Women. Moreover, in her service to youth, at the request of the mayor’s committee, Nixon co-chaired the El Paso Parks and Recreation Department. Another of her endearing and far-reaching gifts was teaching music to children. Her best-known student was Barbara Jean Tutt Lee, California’s Ninth Congressional District U.S. Congresswoman, whom Nixon instructed in music and piano lessons.
In 1945 Nixon became a charter member of the El Paso chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW). This group shared Nixon’s political views and beliefs: a commitment to multiracial coalition-building to address institutional racism, economic disparity, and political exclusion. Nixon served on the SCHW’s executive committee and helped promote its progressive agenda, participated in group meetings, became active in voter registration drives, lobbied for the abolition of the poll tax, led group discussions on educational reform, publicized the effects of segregation and discrimination in the South, prevented the unjust deportation of labor activist Humberto Silex, and organized the visits of guest speakers such as Idaho Senator Glen H. Taylor.
Nixon was part of a national association whose leadership consisted of prominent activists such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Virginia Durr, Aubrey Williams, Lillian Smith, Lucy Randolph Mason, Walter White, Frank P. Graham, and James A. Dombrowski. Unfortunately, in June 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee deemed the national SCHW a “deviously camouflaged Communists-front organization.” These false allegations prompted the El Paso SCHW to cease operating in 1948.
Nevertheless, Nixon remained engaged in local affairs and the fight for civil rights, including supporting the city’s formal integration by way of the 1962 El Paso City Ordinance. In the early 1960s, El Paso integrationists formed an ad-hoc council, which included Nixon, that later became the Citizens’ Committee on Human Relations. They successfully demanded that the city approve Ordinance 2698 on June 21, 1962, which applied to restaurants, hotels and motels, and to places of public entertainment. The national press asserted that El Paso “became the first entirely integrated city in Texas, the first in all the South and Southwest to come to terms with the most divisive issue of the republic.”
During all her activism, Nixon remained elegantly soft-spoken, but firm, not hesitant in speaking forcefully when needed. One El Pasoan recalled that “her husband was very quiet, and she was the agitator in the family.” Nixon died on May 10, 1990, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The El Paso Commission for Women inducted Nixon posthumously as an honorary member of the El Paso Hall of Fame. Nixon left an indelible mark on the people and communities she encountered.