James McBride Dabbs - the second son

James McBride Dabbs
May 8, 1896 - May 30, 1970

More information has been provided in articles, books, and papers on James McBride Dabbs than any other member of the Dabbs family.  Thus it seems repetitive to include information that is easily found on web pages.  At his death, James's five children provided the Caroliniana Library nine linear feet of letters, papers, and articles related to their father.  Included in hundreds of letters is an extensive exchange between James and his father (E.W. Dabbs) while the son was in college at the University of South Carolina and overseas during WWI.  In addition, James's book, The Road Home, (1960), is an autobiography of his search for God and his personal growth to the understanding of racial justie.  He published three other books, The Southern Heritage (1958), Who Speaks for the South (1964) and Haunted by God (1972).  A 30-minutes interview with Mike Wallace in 1958 can be found on-line at the following site:  http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/dabbs_james_mcbride.html


James was a soft spoken poet-philosopher and social activist, who began his career as an English Professor at Coker College but returned home to farm after the death of his first wife, Jessie Armstrong.  He inherited Rip Raps from his grandmother, Sophronia McBride, at the time of her death and named his first daughter in honor of his mother, Maude.
 James became known throughout the country as a spokesman for social justice and racial equality during a time of turbulence in the South.  As President of the Southern Regional Council, a board member of Penn Community Services for African Americans and a committee member of Fellowship of  Southern Churches he softly, but doggedly pressured the church to recognize that segregation hurt both races and the churches had a responsibility to lead the way  for integration.  In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed to Dabbs as one of the three southern churchmen who actually understood what the struggle was all about.  Mike Wallace interviewed James Dabbs on national television in 1958 and asked how his neighbors viewed him in the South.  With his usual mild wit and gentle chuckle, he replied, “a damn fool.”
His quote was undoubtedly accurate even within his own family.  But the Dabbs family had a way of disagreeing with one another and finding the humor within their arguments.  His brother, Eugene W. Dabbs, Jr. and Guy McBride (Mac) Dabbs, along with their wives were in total disagreement with James on issues of how to reach racial equality, although his two sisters, Elizabeth and Sophie expressed more liberal tendencies supporting his views.  His oldest brother, Eugene Dabbs, Jr., did not live long enough to become embroiled in the intensity of the racial struggles of the 60’s, but his brother, Guy McBride Dabbs, expressed strong objection when James began signing his books and articles as James McBride Dabbs instead of just James Dabbs.  Since Guy McBride Dabbs was known better as McBride Dabbs than Guy, he didn’t wish to have any confusion over which Dabbs was the author of such liberal rhetoric. 

Jesse Armstrong Dabbs

James’s first wife was Jessie C. Armstrong, (1896 – 1933); a friend of his sister’s, Elizabeth, from Winthrop College.   Elizabeth arranged for them to meet in 1917. Their initial attraction developed more through correspondence than their first introduction.   Romantics, they read Keats, Yeats, and Wordsworth together and she told him she trusted him despite some of his strange ideas. They were married in May of 1918.  In July of 1918, James left for France to become one of Pershing’s million-man reserves.   Jessie took a job as principal of the school at Elko, SC, but after getting the flu was brought back to Mayesville for Christmas.   Jessie was not in good health.  She had two mastoid operations during James’s absence and continued to suffer nose bleeds. 
  James returned in August of 1919, and their first child, Maude Elizabeth, was born in 1920.  After the birth of Maude Elizabeth, Jessie was away in a sanitarium while James remained on the family farm with his father, Mother Sudie, and daughter.    When she was better she and James returned to the University of South Carolina, but then took a leave of absence when Jesse encouraged him to
continue with his graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City.  After one year, James accepted a job as Head of the English Department at Coker College in South Carolina, where Jessie’s health worsened with what was described as a serious heart condition.  Although she taught piano lessons she had long periods of being confined to bed.   James again left to return to Columbia in 1929 to try to complete his doctorate, but again returned to his wife as she experienced more health problems.   Following the birth of their second daughter, Carolyn McBride in 1931, Jesse’s health again worsened.  In 1932 she had a severe stroke that left one side of her body paralyzed.  She died in 1933 leaving James with two daughters, the oldest 13 years old and the youngest only 2 years old. 
In James’s book, The Road Home, he devotes considerable time to the experience of his first love and her death.  It obviously had a profound impact on his life, but not just as the loss of one you love, but also as a coming to terms with a religious struggle that he describes more in poetic terms than theological terms.  James was a poet and a writer, and the struggle he saw in life between a spiritual and worldly life is evident in this book.  
In his book, James describes finding spiritual and theological understanding through Jessie’s illness that awakened him to that of god both within and outside of himself.  The bridging of the gulf between the god of nature and the god of man,”seems to be what he wanted to put into writing, as much as a clarification for himself as a testimony to those in his life who had led him to that understanding. (The small “g” in front of the word “god” was his preference in this book.)
Sixteen days after Jessie’s death, James describes becoming aware of the spiritual presence of Jessie that would remain within him the rest of his life.     I mention this here because it speaks to witnessing a spiritual essence that appears numerous times among stories that other family members have told.    Jokingly, we may refer to it as ghost stories.  In more somber tones it’s referred to as “experiencing a presence.”
Edith Mitchell Dabbs
Two years after Jessie’s death, James married Edith Wells Mitchell, a former student ten years his junior.  He writes that Edith was willing to accept his total being which carried the sense of Jessie with him.  Two years later they moved back to Rip Raps, the home that he had inherited from his grandmother, and there they remained and raised their family for the remainder of their lives.  James continued teaching part-time and drove back and forth to Coker College until 1942.  He gradually increased the percentage of time he spent farming.  Three more children were born:  James McBride Dabbs, Jr., (1937); Dorothy Dabbs (1943); and Richard Whitefield Dabbs (1945).  Their lives moved into a daily pattern of working together and it
Rip Raps was placed on the National Historical Registry in 1978 and it is sometimes referenced as a wealthy former plantation.  Wealth is obviously in the eye of the beholder for never in my recollection of growing up was wealth ever coupled as something the Dabbs family had.  The houses were all formidable, but they were furnished modestly and all were constantly in need of some sort of repair work and a new coat of paint.  Mildew remains a nuisance.  Household help was plentiful, as was help for the fields, but pay was minimal, and many black people worked with little monetary gain.  Laborers and their families were fed and provided with very basic housing, sometimes as part of their salary.   There was most definitely a patronage system in place.  The introduction of trailers in the South improved housing accommodations dramatically for thousands of low-income people.
 Are all the Dabbs homes large?  Yes they are.  Did every family have some kind of help within the home and on their farms?  Yes they did.   Did all of the Dabbs own land?   Yes they did.  Did all of the children go to college?  Yes they did.  Those four things in and of themselves provided the Dabbs family with a degree of wealth and security far above many other struggling families in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60’s, however no Dabbs will describe their lives as privileged.  Mortgages and land taxes weighed heavily on the family and a review of household finances shows little extra money to spare.  Land was merely property left to care for during one’s lifetime, not a commodity to be sold for personal financial gain. The James Dabbs family, despite the size of the house and James’s national prominence had little money to spend freely.  All of their children went through college on scholarships.
 Upon his return to Rip Raps, James Dabbs became more acutely aware of the disparities between blacks and whites and struggled with his desire to treat hired help with increased dignity.  He recognized a division in his own life of not just admitting wrong, but the inability of all whites to pull themselves out of a trap of racial discrimination they perceived as hopeless.   His love and immediate interest remained expressing these concerns through writing, and he openly admitted his goals were not to be the best farmer in the county.  In contrast, his younger brother, Mac, was known throughout the area as an excellent and profitable farmer.  It was thus that James enjoyed the humor when one of Mac’s friends who had been visiting asked to hunt on some of the James Dabbs property and returned to Mac’s home saying that he’d seen the prettiest farm he’d ever seen in his life over at James’s house. 
 The decade of the 60’s brought civil unrest and James’s rise in prominence as a civil rights activist, speaker and author.  Volumes have been written about his work in this field.  It is important to acknowledge that Edith worked along side James throughout this decade and made significant contributions of her own.  She edited much of his work and compiled abundant materials about St. Helena Island which resulted in three publications:  Walking Tall (1964), Face of an Island  (1970) and Sea Island Diary (1983).
My personal memories of going to visit Uncle James and Aunt Edith were rooms filled with papers and books, endlessly scattered throughout the house.   Uncle James would sit on the front piazza smoking a pipe and listen; not a passionate social activist, but a persistent one. He would chuckle softly as relatives and friend would argue incessantly over racial and political issues.  As always, the art of arguing in the Dabbs family rarely fell to an exchange of harsh words but remained subtle, humorous, and a challenging debate.  Only once do I know of did a family disagreement stoop to personal attacks, and this was over land, not race.
 Probably one of the most endearing stories of James and Edith that I know involves the afternoon the two of them sat on the front piazza facing the long avenue that headed through the pines from their house to Highway 378.
“Edith,” James said, “I believe we have company coming,” as he watched a lone man walking up the drive.
“Why James,” Edith remarked as the man got closer.  “I don’t believe that man is wearing any clothes.”
“Well, Edith,” James replied, “I do believe you are right.  Better go make some ice tea.  It’s going to be an interesting visit.”  And so, we are told, it was.
In addition, James and Edith had at least two possible encounters with the Ku Klux Klan during the 60’s.  On one occasion, three men came to the front of the house to confront James on what he was advocating, whereupon James invited them to come in and talk.   Two came in the house, one stayed with the car.  James promised them that, if they could show him anywhere in the Bible that it stated that the races should be kept separate he would withdraw his support for integration.  According to his son, Dick Dabbs, their mother, who was feeling very uneasy about the situation went outside and commenced talking with the man standing beside the car.  As he walked around to the back of the car and opened the trunk she followed him.    He quickly shut it.  In a little more than an hour, we are told that the men left.  No harm was done to anyone, although no minds were changed.
On a second occasion following a national television interview during which James had expressed the need for integration in the South, the black community feared that harm would fall upon him when he returned home to Rip Raps.  Since he had to pass through the swamp at night, his black neighbors came out in their cars to line the causeway of the swamp with headlights that would provide light and protection until he reached his home.  This tribute from the local community was humbling.
 And so James ends The Road Home with the following poem:
The world is round, so travelers tell,
And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on, ‘twill all be well,
The way will guide one back.
James McBride Dabbs died the morning of May 30, 1970.  He had just finished putting the last words on his manuscript, Haunted by God, signed his name and placed a period after it…..something he’d never done before.  He was heard to say, “I think that’s all I can do.”  He lay down on the couch to take a nap and never awoke.