03/12/06 — Dawson memoir looks back at growing up black in Wayne

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Dawson memoir looks back at growing up black in Wayne

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 12, 2006 2:11 AM

A poor, black, skinny and undernourished little boy who lived through the Depression and the evolution of a segregated society said he never allowed adverse circumstances to rob him of his dignity or his desire to succeed.

Life might be much different today for Ulis Dawson, but similar injustices continue to plague society, and so, too, do the bad choices, he says.

He said he has a growing concern for youths, particularly those who come from poverty and opt to become promiscuous, join gangs or choose to take drugs and end up in prison.

And so, finally, at age 78, he decided to speak not only to his contemporaries about their shared pasts, but to reach out to the next generation, to talk about their futures.

Dawson said his autobiography, "The Future is Now," was written to inspire and motivate as much as to tell the story of his journey through prejudice, segregation and beyond.

He says it is a story that needs to be told.

"Very little have I read written by historians and other writers actually talking in specifics about those times," he said. "I don't know why it is that writers don't write about it. They really don't go into any detail, really explaining the times as they were, the terrible things imposed not only on black people but poor white people."

Born the fifth child in a family of four boys and four girls, Dawson said his father left the family during the Depression. His mother was an extraordinarily strong woman and an exceptionally good mother, he said.

"She was the wisest person to influence my life," he said.

Dawson said growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in a segregated racist society affected all facets of his life. While he admits to experiences that were painful at the time, Dawson said they also challenged him to become a better person.

"I have had some awful things happen to me, but my mother was the stabilizing force. The main thing was to survive and survive with dignity," he said.

The book contains candid accounts of his life.

Dawson describes how, when he was about 11 years old, he and his family heard a knock at the door around 11 p.m.

Seven or eight men wearing white sheets and hoods over their heads ran through the house after having kicked in the door, he said. They claimed to be looking for Dawson's older brother, who was 17 at the time.

While ransacking the home, one man turned over the waste bucket and in the process, he dragged his hand in some of the contents.

Once the men left, Dawson wrote how he and his siblings "laughed and laughed. This was more fun than we had experienced in a long time."

Years later, he said, his mother told him she had recognized some of the men's voices.

At an even younger age, he recalled being sent to the main street grocery store to purchase some sugar for his mother. When asked if he would like to make a dime, he readily accepted.

"Ten cents during those days was a lot of money," he wrote.

The man said he wanted to hide an egg somewhere on Dawson and he would earn the dime if another man, who was in the back of the store, could not find it. He then put the egg under the young boy's cap, then summoned the other man and urged him to try and find it.

"A fool would have guessed that the egg was on top of my head by the way I was standing and acting. I was as straight as the Statue of Liberty. Mr. John patted my pockets, front and back, and each time said, 'It ain't here.' Then all of a sudden he slammed his hand on top of my head and broke the egg."

A crowd of white men soon gathered, laughing uproariously at the scene.

"To them this was funny, seeing me standing there with egg dripping down my face," Dawson wrote. He said he soon realized that the egg was not only broken; it was rotten.

"As embarrassed as I was, I felt hurt because he did not give me the 10 cents. I also hoped that no one else would figure out what this did to me. I never told Mama because she thought so highly of those who worked in the store."

Despite such recollections, Dawson is quick to explain, his story is not one of bitterness.

"Even though I'm talking about racism during the time, that was the accepted norm in the South. This really isn't negatively criticizing; it's bringing about what was happening at the time," he said.

Also woven through the pages is Dawson's love story with his wife, Ethel, and their journey of faith while raising their own eight children.

"She looks out for me, and she still cooks those good meals for me. We eat two meals together every day," he said before quietly adding, "We love each other."

He said the book took him nearly a year to write, with much of it based on experiences he had jotted down over the last 20 years.

"In the back of my mind, I might not have been able to specify some of the exact dates, but the incidents were there," he said. Any lack of detail regarding names can be attributed to legalities more than a faulty memory, he said.

"In some cases I'm stepping pretty close to the line," he said.

Reliving the memories of his youth did not open up old wounds, he said.

"I have elevated my mental status above that. Instead of looking at it as being an atrocious time of living, I took them to be valuable lessons to help me to grow into the person that I am," he said.

That person went on to be named president of the Goldsboro/Wayne branch of the NAACP in 1999 and grand master of the North Carolina jurisdiction of the masons. He retired from O'Berry Center, where he had been recreational therapist and administrator. Dawson has also been a strong supporter of education, having volunteered at schools in Goldsboro and LaGrange.

"When I was NAACP president, one of my tenets was, 'Give me 50 black men in Goldsboro who will stand together, and we'll do wonders in the schools and you don't have to be worrying about Goldsboro High School,'" he said. "Do you know how many I got? The seven or eight who are now the Advocates," a group devoted to keeping a watch on issues and actions affecting education and the local community.

Undaunted, he said he still holds out hope for the future generations and hopes his book's message will contribute to that.

"Having overcome life in a poor living environment, rising above denials and hatred, having a rotten egg burst on my head, experiencing racism in a national militia, always entering from the back door of white employers who weekly paid 10 cents, a rotten banana and a pocket full of pecans, and suffering many acts of servitude, I was determined to make a better life for myself, my family, and those who witnessed similar experiences," Dawson writes. "With the help of an Almighty God whose teachings held my head high and led me to greater things in life, I submit this legacy as encouragement for generations to come."

Two book signings have been scheduled at area churches in the near future. The first will be on April 9 at 2 p.m. at his home church, St. Luke Freewill Baptist Church in LaGrange. The other will be on May 8 at 2 p.m. at Alpha and Omega Christian Center on Collier Street in Goldsboro, where Dawson's son, Frank, is pastor.