Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Frances Dixon - Retired Clinical Assistant & Black Panther Mom

Mrs. Frances Dixon worked in the medical field, was married to Elmer Dixon Sr of the Model Cities project and was mother to sons and daughters who were Seattle's Black Panther leadership

Frances Dixon in Chicago, 1940. Collection: Frances Dixon

You and your husband moved here from Chicago?

We moved here in 1957 with four children from Champaigne, Illinois.

What was your first impression coming here from Illinois?

I just knew it had lots of hills. It was completely different from being in Chicago, or Champaigne. Completely. Here it was very country-like, we used to leave our doors unlocked back then. There was nothing very strange in the news. It was just plain old daily news, you never heard about any robberies or anything like that. I couldn’t believe it. Nothing seemed to happen here. Well, until later, of course.

What was your neighborhood like when you lived in Illinois?

The entire neighborhood, well, we were all Negroes back then. In Illinois, no whites lived in our neighborhood. Soon as we’d move in they’d move out.

What was it like, then, moving to a mixed neighborhood here?

Not too much (different) because my mother passed for white the whole time I was growing up. My mother’s over there (points to a photo on the wall). In that picture, that’s me as a baby with my dad. So, I’m used to (being around white people) and my kids are like that, too.

Frances Dixon as a babe in arms with her parents. Collection: Frances Dixon

Color didn’t bother me at all because my family’s all pretty well mixed up, all kind of color. So moving here with everyone didn’t bother me. Still I was shocked.

Now, (earlier during childhood) when I went to school in St. Paul Minnesota I had a little cultural shock moving there from Chicago. When I walked in a classroom all the kids were predominantly white. I’d never seen that before ‘cause all our schools in Chicago were all one color.

When you moved here, did you find it to be welcoming?

Well, depends on where I went, you know -

Yes, a good point [laughs].

I never had any problems with anybody, really. I knew that stores were segregated. All the stores were segregated then: the grocery stores; the Woolworths's... The people that worked behind the counter were usually Asian or Filipino. Before we came here we were told it was more of a blue-collar, not a professional-type environment we were going to enter here. My husband graduated from the Art Institute in Chicago. He came from Chanute Air Force Base where he was hired to work as an illustrator, and then Boeing picked him up from there. They were looking for people to come out this way and they liked his work and so they moved us out here. We didn’t have to pay our way at all.

Well, they hired him, I don’t know. He wasn’t looking for them, they looked for him, I guess.

He must have been very talented.

Yes. Still, we couldn’t live anywhere (redlining). For about two weeks, they used to send us newspapers (for listings) so we could maybe pick out a house that we might want to rent or an apartment but none of those were available to us. We didn’t realize it until we came out here.

So when we came out (to Seattle), traveling by car, from back in the Midwest all the way out here, we didn’t know how we’d be treated when we stopped at motels. We just stopped whenever we wanted to, and never had any problems, ever.  Still then we didn’t know how we’d be treated in Seattle.

Your husband must have been a singular person, very unusual at that time to have chosen to be an artist, to have gotten into the Art Institute…

Elmer Dixon, Frances' husband. Collection: Frances Dixon 
He started (Art) in school; in schools (those days) they had programs. If they see someone that liked to draw, then they put them in the program and they’d go on Saturday afternoons or Saturday mornings to the Art Institute (museum). That’s just what he liked to do.

He must have been very good at it because he got into the Art Institute (undergrad), too.

Yes, yes. But he was that type anyway; he liked music. He liked classical music, and he liked opera and he introduced me to my first ballet. Even though I majored in music I didn’t know as much about things like that that he did. He had an Uncle that worked at the Chicago Opera House.

I’m sorry I never met your husband.

Oh, he was exceptional. He really was. He had a great personality, great sense of humor. He would say, “Oh, I love to hear Elmer (their son) laugh.  Have you ever seen a picture of my husband? He was a good listener. Everything, every picture I have of him you could see that he’s listening to what you’re saying. You can tell.

So he was an artist, a listener but he was also a fighter. Aaron told me a story of when his father was in the military. It was really hot and they asked a farmer if they could cut through his field. Do you know this story?

Now, is this here in the States?


Oh, well, you know, kids stretch imagination. It was in Mississippi.

To understand my husband back then; he had just graduated from high school, he was 18. Now, this is just stories because I didn’t know him then. I didn’t know him until after the war. He had very close friends, well, he had a lot of buddies that he went through grade school and high school. A group of girls and boys who were just one big clique in Chicago. He grew up in Chicago.

Chicago has neighborhoods and he lived in what they called Woodlawn. So he and his big group of friends, they all went to grade school together. They were all Negro children, colored children, we were (called) colored back then. The girls would stop by his house. His mother was a perfect homemaker. You know, she never worked until her grandchildren came along, babysitting, that’s all she ever really did. She was always home and the kids would knock on the door “Mrs. Dixon, is Elmer (Frances’ husband is named Elmer as is her son) ready?” They’d all head off and walk to school together. Sounded like a great time they had.

Elmer Dixon, Frances' husband with his buddies. Collection: Frances Dixon

He said for his high school prom, he didn’t go to the prom; he went to Whitecastle. You know that? It’s from Chicago. He bought a bag of Whitecastle Hamburgers, ate and listened to music on the radio. That’s what he did, mmhm. That’s the type of person he was.

Yes, he definitely went his own way. You can see that your children got that, too.

Well, we kind of grew up that way. We always had classical music playing or opera. My husband loved opera, the symphony, things like that, so that was their surroundings. And jazz, we were jazz buffs, too. All of his friends, his best buddies were like that, too. 

Now did he play music?

He’s not a musician. He didn’t play anything. He just liked to listen.

You have an organ over there.

This is my piano. I’d taken piano lessons when I was five. My mother gave me that when I was sixteen back in Minnesota, so that’s my piano.

You were a Music major. Did you play with anybody here or were you just too busy with the kids?

No, I didn’t have time to play. I was working.

Where’d you work?

My first job was at Virginia Mason Hospital, the old hospital. I don’t think anybody would recognize it now because it was only five stories back then. It was just a brown building on the corner of Eighth Avenue. I worked there for five years as a Ward Secretary. Then I left and worked at a little nursing home around the corner for about a year, part-time.

How it worked back then, when you went to a personnel office to see if you could fill out an application and if they could find a job for you. I went to Group Health and they happened to have an opening. Back in those days all the doctors had RNs working for them and they were trying to fit in Assistants, Clinic Assistants. That’s what they were looking for at Group Health. They were trying to start a program.  Anyway, they looked at my record of what I did at Virginia Mason Hospital. They thought, well, maybe I might work out. They picked me out of, about fifteen applicants or so. They chose me. Mrs. Ross, who was the Director of Nursing at the time told me, “Well, I think you can work, but there is someone here that really is not liking this proposition that we’re trying to start here.” A doctor, Dr. Fogliano, Head of the Ear Nose and Throat Department, wanted an RN with him at all times. He didn’t want any outsider that hadn’t worked with a doctor before. She said, “We think we’re going put you there with him, since he doesn’t want you.” [laughs]

Frances Dixon in Chicago, 1949. Collection: Frances Dixon 
I sat in their office for two weeks until she finally convinced him to try me out, and so he did. The way he did things was so different, when he worked with a patient he just dictated, like I’m talking to you. He was telling what he was doing, what he was going to do. You had to write it down, to take notes. Some of these words I’d never heard before like Cerumen [earwax] and Epistaxis [nosebleed] and all those kind of things. One day he just said, “Come in and sit down. I want you to take some notes.” So I did that. I did that. He also did surgeries on that floor, which is unusual. He had set this up his own special way.

Sounds like it. [laughs]

There was a Surgery Suite and there were rooms for patients to wake up (Recovery Rooms). He did adult patients, tonsillectomies... Oh God, I forgot what else he did, but he did a lot of surgeries. So, he had me come in there and I looked at all that blood and gore. I thought, “Oh my god, I don’t know if I can stand this.” I finally got used to it. He had me pick up the hammer and help with the surgeries on the nose and tap all those bones and cartilage out and pull this and pull that. After a while you get used to it; it’s amazing. He got so that he was beginning to like me a little bit, you know. Still, he had me in tears quite a few times. I would go behind a door somewhere and you know boo-hoo a little bit, but I wouldn’t never let anybody see me. He finally started calling me Fran. And so, he was really nice to me after a while. [laughs] Took a while.

After you proved your mettle?

I guess so, yes. There was another doctor, too, Doctor Rowan. I worked between the two at the time. And then Dr. Fogliano retired. He was getting older and so I worked just for Doctor Rowan.

I worked there, oh, seven years. I was going to work longer, but Aaron’s boy needed some attention because he was just a little guy. He needed to get out of that environment down in Oakland at The Party (The Black Panther Party).

Yes, Aaron said that that’s the only thing he really regrets is that a lot of the first born sons of the Panthers had a very tough time.

They did, yeah, they did.

Aaron Dixon, Frances' son. Black Panther Captain
Seattle Magazine

I had a picture of him (her grandson), he looked so sad, he looked so cute. But anyway his mother brought him back to Seattle for Christmas. My husband and I noticed that he needed some attention. We said, “We’re not going to let him go back down there.” We just decided that. Aaron was already down there and he really didn’t mind at the time, I don’t believe.

I kept him, we kept him for a long time.

I’m sure that was the right thing.

Oh, I know it was. I know it was.

It’s a very loving thing to do because it’s a lot to take on a small child.

Well, it’s your grandchild. You’re not going to let anything happen to him if you’ve got any decency about yourself. Uh-uh. We kept him and he thrived beautifully.

Is he happy?

Oh yes, he’s a grown man. He went to Howard University for a little while.

Oh did he?!

Yeah, this is, this is him. (Shows a picture, not shown here) Good-looking little kid.

Oh, yes he is. The Dixons are an attractive family, all of them.

He was a perfect little child to keep. Really. I used to braid his hair. You see all that hair? I used to braid it and take him to the store. Everybody said, “Oh what a pretty little baby.”
So I kept him. Also Aaron’s wife’s mother lived in Seattle. We had worked out a thing where we could keep him together because I had quit my job at Group Health to take care of him. That summer I was fine, but then later I was used to working. I just didn’t like being at home all the time. I was busy baking bread and stuff and I thought, “Well, that’s enough house maid, housewife stuff.”

I saw this ad in the paper for Medical Assistants to work at (Virginia) Mason clinic. The clinic that’s there now was not there then. It was just an apartment building on the corner and the clinic only had four floors back then, now it has eight, so this was way back. I asked my neighbor, “I saw this job in the paper. I wonder if you could keep my little grandson for about an hour or so ‘til I can see if I can fill out an application.” She said, “Oh, yes.” So she kept him (babysat). She knew him.

Was that Mrs. Melinsen?

Oh no, this was people who lived next door. That was the Hardings, Bobby was in the Panther Party, too.

She kept him for me and then they told me I got the job. I said “Oh, my gosh. I wasn’t planning, I didn’t think I’d get hired this quick. I asked, “I wonder could you wait ‘til later in the year, like summer?” This was in the spring. They said, “ok, we’ll call you” They never called, so I called them at the clinic. The Nurse Supervisor girl hired me that day. She said, “I hope you’re going to be here for a while, at least ten years.” I said to myself, Ten years? I was there 18 years. Then I retired.

Frances Dixon at work as a Medical Assistant. Collection: Frances Dixon

Did you have an affinity for things medical or did it just end up that way?

I think I did, because I worked in a Catholic hospital before I moved out here, just as a nurse’s aide. I just have a natural ability for it, I found out. I just have a knack for it.

Then that got passed on because your son Elmer, he started a clinic here (Carolyn Downs Clinic). I’ve heard when he was young he thought about being a doctor.

Yes, when he was younger, we always had our dinner at the dining table, all six of us. We’d talk about all kind of things. I was reminding him the other day. I said, “Remember Elmer, you said you wanted to be a neurosurgeon and go to University of Hawaii. That’s what he said. This was when he was still in high school. That was his thing. But anyway, that didn’t happen.

Well, the Party happened. The clinics happened. And the clinic still survives

Oh yes, the clinic on Yesler. 

So, returning to your son Elmer, he took that medical affinity and started the clinic.

Oh well, also, he was busy with his music; he played in the band. Elmer’s just always been outgoing.  When he got in high school he said he was going to be the quarterback for the football team. He was out in the backyard goofing around with some friends and he broke his collarbone. So my husband had to rush him to the hospital. After that he said, “Well, I’m going to be the drum major.” He’s that type. He’s tall. He had the hat and everything. He made the perfect drum major.

So he was not supposed to be a quarterback, evidently. So he had his eyes set on (Drum Major) and he got it. He’s that type. “What I want to do, I’m going to do this.” He just does it. He usually is successful at it, whatever he does. He’s been like that from a little baby. He didn’t like being wet so he potty trained himself.

So, strong-willed.

Uh-huh. I had, all my children are about a year-and-a-half apart.

Oh really?

Yeah, I’ve had five babies. The second little girl died.

Oh, I’m sorry.

That’s, that’s all right. And I had them so close. And I never had morning sickness. Never had labor over four or five hours.

Frances Dixon at 4 years old above. Her children: Michael, Elmer and Aaron in IL
Collection: Frances Dixon


Never. I was telling a girl at church that and she said, “What?!” I said, “Yeah, I never had any problems at all.”

That’s a blessing.

Mmmhm. Really a blessing. Now what about my daughter? Joanne came before Aaron.

What’s Joanne like?

Oh she’s… the boys are crazy about her; she was very bossy to them. She helped me a lot when they were growing up. They say, “Remember mommy, Joanne used to chase us with the broom?” [laughs] She would. She’d make ‘em mind. She just kind of, I guess, took on some of my tactics.

Michael’s the youngest. They’re very close. They talk to each other often.

What did Joanne end up doing for work?

She just retired last year from the Police Department in San Francisco. She was a 911 Operator, Dispatcher for the Police and later for the Fire Department. She’s gotten all kind of awards for that.

She’s also got a cool head.

Oh yeah, she is. Yes, she’s pretty, very cool. I think that’s what they used to call me in college. Some of the guys used to call me, “There goes Ms. Cool Breeze.” I guess it’s just my manner.

Do you think they meant that you don’t get rattled or that you’re a person that’s a nice cool breeze to be around?

Frances Dixon in 1949. Collection: Frances Dixon

I guess I’m just pretty quiet and don’t make too much over anything.

Yes. You don’t get ruffled.

If I am, you don’t know it. For an example, I’d been out over to visiting a lady after church. The next morning when I woke up my foot was killing me. I thought, “Now what did I do?” But I never mentioned it to any of my kids.

Michael came over Monday evening to talk. Elmer comes over every Sunday. I didn’t mention it to him. None of them have known about my foot at all. It’s finally fine. I figured out for myself it must be tendonitis. Evidently it was. I called the doctor but couldn’t get an appointment ‘til tomorrow, so I kept putzing around and finally I got it figured out. It’s fine now.

You’re tough.

If I make up my mind; yes. I grew up pretty tough, in pretty tough circumstances. Well, my great-grandmother helped raised me. That was because my mother worked all the time. But my son Michael he says, “Mommy, you know, you’re a survivor.” I said, “I guess so.”

When I was five I took piano lessons. You’d think your mother would take you to the lessons. She took me the first day and the other days she’d walk me to the corner and then send me across the street. I’d have to go up to this Ms. Hardy. I never forgot her. That was my first music teacher.

And so I got used to going places by myself, that you would not let a child do now. My mother sent me to kindergarten. I remember, she always told me, “Don’t stop and talk to anybody, don’t let any man talk to you, don’t talk to anybody.” I never did. I always remembered that. I remember walking to school in Chicago. Are you familiar with Chicago?

A little bit, yes.

Well, the tall building had a gangway that goes underneath the building all the way out to the back and there’s some steps you have to walk down. I remember this man calling me, “Come here little girl.” And I remember running to school. I was always very careful. Then on Fridays she’d walk me to State Street, we lived on Michigan Street. She’d call her grandmother, my great grandma, and tell her, “I’m putting Frances on the street car now.” And so she’d meet me at the other end at Ninety-fifth Street. So I was used to being independent.

I think it’s good training. It’s important.

I’d get there and Grandma would be waiting for me and we’d walk to her house. Then [laughs] I was telling this neighbor that I saw Sunday, she’s 102, she’s also a Frances, this lady that I’m talking about. She asked me,  “Frances, I think about you. How did you do all that? How did you do so many things by yourself?” I said, “I was just used to it.” So that’s my personality, I guess. So I’m perfectly happy alone. I can make it fine.

Frances Dixon with her cousins. Collection: Frances Dixon

Now, when I was little when I was often at was my Aunt Marie's house, my grandmother lived with her daughter, Marie. Aunt Marie and Uncle Milt, four children, they had two sons and two daughters. I was like their little sister when I would come out there. I would be on the street car every Friday going out there for the weekend to go to Sunday school. Then on Sunday my grandma would put me on the street car and send me back to my mother's. So that went on for years.

 (When I was a child) growing up my cousin Emmett would come out and take us for a ride with grandma, we’d go for a ride.”

In the car?

Yes, that’s what I’m talking about the car. I don’t know how else I would ride if I didn’t go in a car.

On a bicycle, I guess.

No. Well, I don’t think he’d ask me if I wanted to go for a ride on a bicycle.

True, true.

I wouldn’t dare get on one.

Was there a lot of joy in that time or...?

Joy? Oh yeah, why wouldn't there be joy?

I don't know, you said you were alone a lot and you were commuting by yourself.

But I'm so used to it. I was used to it.

Oh, of course. I was happy to be with my grandmother out at 95th Street because all my little playmates were out there on the weekend. I'd go to Sunday school and then I'd come back home. I'd go to school.

There are times when I think about it and I think, “God, how did I do it?”

My mother and dad split up because my dad drank. He had a really good job in the Post Office during the (Great) Depression. That was the job to have (because it was steady work at a time when that was rare and valuable). All the doctors and lawyers wished they had a job in the post office back then. My Uncle Milt had a good job in the post office and he built the house that they lived in. He built it when my mother was little. He bought like four or five lots and he built his house, his property on that. Sometimes my mother used to go out and wash my Aunt Marie’s hair.

So you were always used to big houses like this.

 Frances' Great-Grandmother (far left) and her siblings. Collection: Frances Dixon

Oh yeah, my grandma and I used to sleep in the attic. I used to love it up there ‘cause you could hear the rain.

Yeah, I love that sound. I still sleep upstairs.

My Aunt Marie, she’s gone now. The last time I went to Chicago one summer I asked, “Aunt Marie, do you mind if I go up in the attic? I want to look.” She says, “Well, don’t get dirty up there Frances.” So I went up there up the stairs and sitting right in the middle of the floor is my grandmother’s sewing machine. I went in there and took her thimbles she had left in there. Then I walked around, I was afraid there might be a few mice up there, It was a big attic because it was a big house. I went and looked at the front of the house and in the window, believe it or not, let me show you what was in there [walking away].

It’s funny that you took your grandma’s thimble because when my grandma passed, I took her thimbles, too.

Did you? I have my great-grandma’s scissors somewhere. This is what was in the window. I used to read those big little books and they were in the window all those years. 

From when you’d left them.

Also there was a beaded bag, you know, I used to have those beaded bags. I went to open it and inside looked like a melted Milky Way or something. So I had to throw that away.

What did you write in here?  [Reading] “If grandma doesn’t come, can I come alone and…” something.

Is that in there? Oh.

And then somebody wrote “Yes.” [laughs]

Oh really? Oh, I’ll be darned. [laughs]

Once someone asked me, “What’s Aaron Dixon like?” I said, “You know, he reminds me of a cat. He has that very collected energy.”

He’s taking in everything.

I can see where that comes from (in your family). Cats, they don’t waste energy, they’re very aware, very affectionate when they know…

Frances' Uncle Emmett and Aunt Jody. Collection: Frances Dixon

When they know the surroundings but they’re not going to let you know what they’re thinking.

So there’s a kind of beautiful cat-like quality.

I think that’s probably what they were talking about me at school, just a few boys who couldn’t quite put their finger on me.

Oh, I bet boys liked you. And were afraid of you [laughs]

No, they weren’t afraid of me. They just didn’t know how to approach me, I guess.

That’s what I mean. They weren’t going to come and display their stupidity in front of you.

I don’t like that type of situation. There’s too much forwardness now. I just hate it when everybody’s got to do this ego thing, take their pictures. I’d much rather look at older pictures.

Well, you have an incredible collection of photos.

I have lots more that my mother had brought out here with her, too.


Of her days at school. I’m just gonna show you some pictures. Now this is one of my mother when she was 16.

Oh wow, she was beautiful.

Frances Dixon's mother.
Collection: Frances Dixon

She was always ashamed of her thin legs. All of the females on my side… You can see my aunt Norma here. She had her own barbershop; that was my great grandmother’s daughter. Here’s my mother over here in the corner with her [inaudible].

She was really lovely, they both were. These (photos) are great. Your family is lucky, too, in that you had cameras and photos.

No, we were not from the South with cotton pickers and all that kind of thing.

You have the gifts of family photos, a continuous family history and education.

Oh yes, yes. My dad’s father was a blacksmith in Como, Mississippi. He had his own blacksmith shop. I visited there when I was about 8. His mother, I think, taught school. I know his sister eventually taught school.

Cyrus Sledge, Blacksmith. Collection: Frances Dixon

That was a really good job back then, having your own business.

I know, he was the only blacksmith around town.

That was an essential part of the community. Your family has a deep history.

I want the kids to realize I write some things on the back (of these photos) because my great grandma had a lovely house with a little picket fence. You see this little girl standing on the outside? That’s my mother when she was little. I want them to know that because they forget if you don’t tell them.

My dad always took our pictures when he was going away to school. That’s where my mother and dad met, at boarding school. See when Negroes didn’t have any money, or if they did have a little money, they sent their children away to boarding school because they didn’t have any public schools like they do (now). There weren’t any schools like that. So if you wanted to get your child a decent education you sent them away to boarding school. So that’s where all my folks went.

Were these boarding schools were in the South? Or were they everywhere?

Oh, the only way you could go was in the South. They didn’t have any schools for people in the North. Maybe Ohio might have been considered North. Like my mother-in-law, she came from pretty nice family too, because she didn’t considered herself from the South. I’ve never eaten any grits before. [laughs] She was quite a lady. She and I became best friends.

She stayed in Chicago?

That’s where my husband grew up. They moved to Chicago from Kentucky. They were originally from Kentucky. From Henderson, Kentucky. My husband’s folks moved to Chicago when he was only six months old so that’s all the place he knew except for visiting his grandparents in the summertime. You know, they’d all drive down there. [shows a picture, not shown here] These are some of my triplet boys. Little great grandsons.

Beautiful, beautiful boys. 


Does everybody come up at Christmas?

Oh no. No, no, no, no, no, no.

Frances' Great-Aunt with a friend. Collection: Frances Dixon

That would be a big group.

No, that’s too much. They used to come but now it’s too much. I used to go there and visit there.

(Shows a picture) These are some of my Mormon friends. I first met her when she first came to Virginia Mason Clinic where I worked. We have been friends ever since. When she heard my husband had died they told me, She just tore out of work and came right up to my house. I wasn’t home. She came as soon as she heard…

What year was that?


Ohhh. He died really young.

He had just turned 60. And I hadn’t quite been 60.

Oh, I’m so sorry.

Yes. He got sick. When I met him he had, I don’t know if it had anything to do with it, he had a mole on his back. You know, they say watch those black moles. I used to watch it every once and a while to see if it was getting any bigger.

He liked parties. He loved to celebrate anything. Birthdays, Thanksgiving – we’d always have the biggest turkey, Halloween we’d have two pumpkins, Christmas we’d have the biggest tree, all that. Even if he got laid off from Boeing, Boeing periodically laid people off, but he would never let me know. He’d always come home with something special. That’s the type of person he was.

He gave me my first birthday party, big birthday party when I turned 21.

So he brought a lot of joy into your life.

Yes. He had a great sense of humor. He asked me once, “Why did you marry me?” I said, “Because you’re so funny, you make me laugh all the time.” He did. He had a great sense of humor.

My husband was also the head of the Art Department for Model Cities, I don’t know if you knew that, but he was.

He might have known Megan Wittenberg’s father, then.

After the kids grew up, we started having New Year’s Eve parties. The last one we had, we always invited just about six people, six couples, people that we were fond of. He was going to build a fire, so he went out in the back to cut the wood. The next day he had a back ache and we just assumed it came from chopping the wood.

Frances & Elmer with friends. 1970s. Collection: Frances Dixon

My friend Elaine said, “I’m spending the night.” So she spent the night and we got up and had breakfast. Elmer was still in his pajamas, which was not like him, then the backache started getting worse and worse. So he had to go to the doctor. He came home and I asked, “What did the doctor say?” “Nothing really,” I think he gave him some pain pills or something. I asked, “Did you take an x-ray?” “No, he didn’t take an x-ray.” I thought that was unusual.

It wasn’t getting any better. Now, back then Group Health was over here on the corner (of Thirty-fourth & Union Street). At that time, they didn’t like you changing doctors. So I said, “I’m going to call up Dr Stever.” Dr. Stever is the doctor who asked Elmer would it be all right with the Panthers if Group Health started this clinic over here. He asked their permission if it would interfere, or bother them if Group Health moved here… I thought that was a lot of respect that he had for them (the BPP).

Where Amara is?

Yeah, that used to be Group Health. Once it was an IGA grocery store where Elmer
worked. He used to put all the letters (signage outside) up. It was the grocery store where we used to go all the time and get our turkeys and things. The Panther clinic was right across the street, on the opposite side of the street, where they had their office and what have you. Anyway Dr. Stever knew them, knew Elmer quite well. I thought, “Well, I know Dr. Stever because I knew him when he was an intern when I was working at Virginia Mason Hospital. I knew him way back then. He didn’t remember me that well, I don’t think, but I remembered him.

I just called up and said, “He has a doctor, but I would like for you to check him.” So they made an appointment and I walked over there with him, or I drove him because he couldn’t hardly walk by that time, his back was hurting so bad.

I took him over there and we sat in the waiting room. The doctor’s office was over here (gestures), the x-ray department was upstairs. Dr. Stever took an x-ray and he came back. As soon as he saw it, his whole expression changed. Then Poppy, we called my husband Poppy, he said, “I saw the way you looked,” he said, “I knew it was something wrong.” He said, “Oh, he’s got cancer.” He had a big tumor like on his spine, that’s why he was having all that pain.

Pearl 3 row right; Peggy 2nd row right; Dell Castle 5 row next to Elmer, Frances 4th row, middle
Collection: Frances Dixon
Right away he called up the oncologist and made an appointment. Took him to the oncologist and I said, I’m going to have to take a walk while you talk to him. He was going to talk to my husband by himself. He didn’t talk to me. I didn’t want to him to. After I came back I said, “What did the doctor tell you?” He said, “He gave me about six months.” That’s how quick this thing was growing. But it was a type of blood cancer, myeloma. He had to be prepared to have radiation and chemo. He handled it very well.

We had planned to go to Chicago that January for him to see the Vatican Museum show, all the paintings and we couldn’t make that. We postponed it and then found out it was going to be in San Francisco where Joanne lives. He rallied and took his medicine and took his treatments and all that and we finally made it to San Francisco that fall. But he was in an awful lot of pain, he was just in terrible pain. I told them at the clinic when I was working that I was going to have to take some time off because I had to take my husband to get his radiation treatments. This one nurse at the nursing office says, “Well, we don’t have any time.” I said “Well, whether you have time or not, I’m taking him.”

Word got back to my Dr. Allen, who I worked for most of the time, he was Head of the Medicine Department. Anyway, I got a call that afternoon says, “Fran, you can take any time, as much time off as you want, anytime you want, just tell us when you’re going.”
His appointments were usually at 4, I’d take off at 2, call my husband, tell him I was coming home, and to start getting ready to go because he had to get from the bed, around the corner to the bathroom. It took him a good half an hour, I know, he was in so much pain.

Well, when I worked at the clinic they said that once they start messing around with your back, you better leave it alone, it’s not good. I have a good friend, Elaine, and her back
is bad too.

It sounds like you’ve had very good female friends.

I did. I didn’t have very many.

You only need a couple of really good ones.

My best friends were… one was a lady that we met when we first came to Seattle, when we lived out on. I could borrow twenty dollars from this one lady that lived on Hiawatha. Her name was Mary, she had two little boys, three boys. They didn’t turn out to be very good. They came from a pretty rough background. Sweet as she could be, but I don’t know, they got off on the wrong track.

 I kept one (of her sons) once when she took a trip to California. He was so sweet. He used to call me ‘Mama.’  I think she liked that. Are you familiar with that area?

I am. It’s totally different now, though. 

Oh gosh, when we came it was just little houses there. Our first neighbor was a little Japanese boy that the kids met and Toma, she was a little Russian girl, and she and my children became friends. Then every once and a while there were little Gypsies that’d come live so it was quite a mixture.

Real Gypsies? Like traveling people?

Yes, real Gypsies.

Aaron, Elmer, Joanne in IL. Collection: Frances Dixon 
Wow. I didn’t know there were any Gypsies in…

Oh yes, they used to come to Virginia Mason Hospital years ago.


Sometimes they came to the clinic, there used to be a group. But as soon as security found out they were in the hospital, they spread the word, “The Gypsies are here,” because they kind of wander around and they pick up things.

Right, right.

They did then, I don’t know what they do now. There’re probably some now that you don’t know about, they’re probably blending into the community better. I don’t think they’re like they used to be. I don’t think so.

They’re still that way in Europe, though.

I would imagine.

They might still do that you probably just don’t recognize them. But anyway there were some that would come and they didn’t stay long. That’s why they call them Gypsies cause they moved around a lot.

My mother used to call my grandmother a Gypsy, “Grandma’s just like a Gypsy.” She moved a lot. She ended up with nothing financially, but she always lived with her daughter who was my aunt, my Aunt Marie. She took care of me, and she had little jobs doing laundry, she was a laundress. But personal stuff, she’d give her last dollar to you if you wanted it. She didn’t want all of these things.

So Gypsy in terms of moving but the opposite of a stereotypical Gypsy, she’d give things away instead of taking things.

Oh yes. She only meant that she moved a lot. She didn’t stay put. She, evidently, lived in Pennsylvania once, I don’t know why, but she did. She did move a lot. If she got angry with you, she’d move out and go stay with my mother, or somebody, one of her friends, and then she’d come back.

Now, was she musical? Is that where you got that?


Frances with her mother as an infant. Collection: Frances Dixon

How about your mom?

No. My mother said that my Aunt Norma was very musical, this lady here (indicating a picture). I think she played the piano and danced and what have you. So, I don’t know, maybe it just comes natural.

So anyway, what were we talking about?

Just that your husband passed very quickly and your female friends were really helpful.

Well, they weren’t helpful, [laughs] they were just friends, just people that I liked to talk to.
My husband liked these parties that we’d have for New Years. We started having them in ’79. I was going to show you here pictures from that time. Now here, here’s my husband. You see how he’s listening to that guy. That’s Dell Castle, that’s my best friend’s husband. He’s on every word that he’s saying to him, if you could tell.

(Shows picture, not shown here) This was a patient of Dr. Rowan’s when I worked at Group Health. Marjorie Gremel. Her father, her husband was a professor of languages at the University of Washington. And she started liking me at the clinic and the clinic was closed for lunch. It closed at twelve, from twelve to one for everybody. And she said, “Why don’t you come with me and I’ll buy you a piece of pie?” Right next door was a little restaurant there, the most delicious pie I’ve ever tasted.

And this was another friend of ours.

Anyway, Marjorie, you see this suit she has on?

It’s a pantsuit.

Those pants legs would’ve probably been turned up to here. [laughs] She was quite a character. She also said one day, “Where do you live?” I told her and she said, “Oh, you know, I’m going go to a meeting there at the school there. Maybe I can come by your house and have some tea.” I said, “Ok.” So she came by one evening. She was sitting on the couch and on that wall back there in that nook was a charcoal drawing of Aaron. She was sitting there and she said, “Is that Aaron Dixon back there?” I don’t think she knew my (last) name. I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Do you know him?” I said, “Yeah, that’s my son.” She said, “Ohhh, I didn’t know that.” After that she told her husband, Mr. Gremel, about that and so they used to help with some of the moneys that they were trying to raise.

For the Panthers?

Yeah. That’s where she knew Aaron from. She had heard about the Panthers.

Now for you how was it? When the boys decided to do that, were you worried for them?

The first time I heard, yeah. The first time we ever heard anything… Now this was before they were in the Panthers, but they were interested in… oh golly, who was that coming to town that was so popular, that was speaking at Garfield. A young person anyway he was speaking at Garfield and so they got interested in his talk. Who was that? Good looking. Oh dear, he was well-known, too. (Stokely Carmichael)

Elmer teaching Art Class for Model Cities. Collection: Frances Dixon

He was younger than Harry Belafonte, but sort of in that realm. Anyway, he was speaking at Garfield and that’s when they got interested in politics, more or less. All my children went to Garfield and Elmer played in the band. A group of them had stopped at a hamburger place across from the school and for some reason there was some little squabble. I don’t know what it was but the police were called. They arrested Elmer among some other kids and they put them in Juvenile Detention. Another boy, a little older than they were, he called up during the night, Mrs. Dixon, Elmer’s been arrested. So that’s when I start getting worried about things like that because they had never been in any trouble before. I couldn’t hardly go to sleep and my husband took the phone. Anyway we finally had to go (get him). Did you know Rosen? The lawyer?


Yeah. Well, he was quite a guy. He became interested in these kids and helping them when they got in trouble because they police were a little picking on brown children, our kids, the black kids. Because Michael used to go visit some of his friends and sometimes they’d be running through the street.  I told him, “Michael don’t run home because if they see you running they’ll think you stole something.” 

We always had dinner at five and then course Elmer would be playing at the band and he’d have to come home during the night. Once Aaron was up on Cherry Street, he might have just been standing there, he could just be standing around and the police got after him. Did they try to arrest him? I can’t remember. Anyway, I always remember him telling me, “Mommy, I told ‘em I need to call my mother” and one of them said, “You don’t have a mother,” that kind of stuff. Things were beginning to get very bad, very touchy. So I think that’s how they got interested (in the Black Panther Party). Then there was a group of kids who were going to the University down in California (probably Berkeley) to some kind of meeting. That’s when the crap hit the fan, more or less.

I used to go in their bedroom and clean it up and nosy around and what have you. I remember I saw that little bitty clipping about so big that said “Black Panthers.” I didn’t know what the Black Panthers were but I thought, “Well, that’s kind of interesting wonder what that’s all about?” So they were getting interested in things like that back then. I didn’t know too much about the Panthers.

Frances' father, Roy Sledge in his backyard, Chicago. Collection: Frances Dixon

At that time in Seattle a lot of kids in the schools were getting kind of tense about how some of the police were treating the children. So one thing led to another. When they went back down to the University in California, I remember going up to Joe’s (Madrona Food Market), which was a Chinese grocery store up here where we had a little running tab. I got some bread and some stuff for the girls and boys to take with them in the car. I made them some lunch. Anyway, when they got down there that’s when they started listening to talks and then that young kid got killed.

I think that must have been Bobby Hutton.
I can’t remember.

So much was going on then. Anyway, my husband used to pick me up from work when I worked at Group Health and he picked me up that day. We were coming home, opened the door and the house was full of young folks, upstairs, downstairs, everywhere you looked there were kids. We looked at each other and thought, “What in the heck?” but we just went on upstairs. Anyway they were meeting and forming the Black Panther Party at that time. That’s when they picked Aaron. I don’t know what year that was.

Then as you began to realize…

Oh, it didn’t bother me. I just wasn’t that concerned because I found myself getting a little tough about it myself.

So you understood?

I grew up with racism myself. As if anybody (of color) didn’t know it. When I hear a black person say, “Oh well, I never, I’ve been treated this way,” I thought, “Where in the heck have you been?” You have or your mother has or somebody.”

Well, people create their own realities based on what they want to be true.

Yes, this person I went to visit, she was saying, “Well, did you ever do any housework (as a job)?” I said, “No,” I tried it once when I was in Champaigne. I thought, I sure would like a little extra change because my husband was working all the time. He worked at a pizza place on the weekends, waiting tables, trying to make some extra money. So he got mad at me once because I was saying, “Well, you’re never home.” He said, “Well, why don’t you get a job?” I said,  “I will.” So I did.

I walked here and there and finally I got hired just like that in this Catholic hospital for 75 cents an hour and the Mother Superior said, “Well, since you’ve had some college we’ll give you 80 cents an hour.” [laughs] I said, “Oh good, ok.” Back then, you didn’t make very much period anyway. So that’s how I got my job, but I guess I’ve just been a little tough all along. Evidently.

Frances' father as a young man. Collection: Frances Dixon

Anyway going back to doing housework (as work) we lived in this project. This girl lived there and her husband was the superintendent of this place. It was a lovely place, lovely, brand new when we moved in there. It was brick, all brick, upstairs, nice bedrooms, everything. So on the weekends she and her husband worked for this white family, who were kind of well off. They’d have parties and what have you. This girl, she worked there sometimes cleaning and dusting, whatever. She says, “Maybe you can work for Ms. So-and-so on a Saturday and I won’t have to go.”

I said, “Well, ok.” She told me where to go to this address, a nice big brick house. I came in and I met the lady and she told me what I had to do, sweep the porch off, do this, do that. [laughs]  I was too damn busy looking at things; they also had a big piano. Anyway, I knew how to make the beds because I started working at this hospital. At the hospital they taught me how to make hospital beds, the proper sheets and all that. I just loved it. So I was making their bed in this house, while she went to the store or something. I was in this bedroom and this man came in, it was evidently her husband, and he said, “Oh, we’ve got somebody new working here.” He said to me, “Where’s Aunt Jemima?”

You know what I said? I said, “Your wife?” He was talking about my friend. All this time she was so happy working for them, that’s what they were calling her underneath and she never knew that. I would never have told her. Oh no, I wouldn’t dare. But I’m saying, it just blurted out of my mouth. I didn’t think they would be calling her that. So I got fired that next Saturday. The wife, I saw her downtown once, and she smiled at me. She said she could see that I shouldn’t have been doing housework because I was not into it at all.

It sounds like you loved your job at the hospital.


It’s a different type of work, anyway.

Oh yeah. Well, I only worked there three days a week. I was so underpaid and they need help so bad, it was a teaching hospital. They would, when I first started there, am I talking too long?

See once you get started talking, I’ll talk. They told me that I had to work, seven or eight days straight and my hours were usually 7-3, 3-11. Then when Thanksgiving came, we had always went to Chicago. My husband said, “Oh no, you have to quit that job. We’re going to Chicago. You can’t work all those hours.” I told them at the hospital, “I can only work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I cannot work the weekends” because I belonged to a little housewife’s bridge club which met on Fridays. They needed help so badly they just said, “That’s ok. That’s fine.” So that’s what I did. My husband got home from work at 4 and I was home in time to fix dinner for him and the children.

We needed a babysitter for that half an hour or hour. I asked my girlfriend who lived in the same project if her oldest daughter, Pat, could watch the children. Well, Joanne was nine then, that’s when I decided she could do pretty well. So I had the babysitter for about a week and Joanne said, “Mommy, I don’t like Pat. I can take care of the house myself” [laughs]. So I said, “You can take everything until your dad gets home?” And she said, “Yeah.” So it was just half an hour you know.

Frances Dixon at 4 years old above. Her children: Michael, Elmer and Aaron in IL
Collection: Frances Dixon

She took on the responsibility.

She’s pretty strong-willed herself. Very, very, very strong.

My husband’s grandparents, as I told you, lived in Kentucky. When his grandfather died he had to go to the funeral. I thought, “Oh god, I won’t get home until 11 at night. What’s going to happen with the kids?” Well, I went to work and Joanne made those boys go to bed. She turned a little night light on for me. Quiet as a mouse when I got there, like an adult had been there, they were all asleep that’s how grown up she was.

Jack Dunn remembered her as the prettiest girl and a good tennis player. They played tennis together. He really liked her. I wonder because your children were known as nice, smart people throughout the Central District, if that didn’t help to prevent what happened in Chicago where the FBI came in and killed everybody.

Listen, I’m sure Aaron has told you that they were planning to kill them here too. The Mayor stopped it.

That was Mayor Uhlman.

I used to go up to the bunker they had on East Spring & 19th Avenue, around there. They’re might still be a wall there. I don’t know but anyway they (the Black Panther Party) had a house there. That’s where they started the clinic, the free clinic. They had sandbags all through there (the building with the free clinic).

They weren’t foolish.

Well, if they had been, they’ve been dead.

Exactly. Maybe the reason the Mayor was willing to step up is because so many in the community, like the Steinbergs, knew Aaron because he was their babysitter.

Elmer Dixon, Frances' husband at Model Cities.
Collection: Frances Dixon

I don’t think so.

Could it have been that they were so deeply rooted into the fabric of the community that there were a lot of people who spoke up for them? The Madrona (Grace) Presbyterian let them have their breakfast program in their basement, the Catholic Peter Claver Center let them hold meetings there. Neighbors of all types helped fund them. They weren’t isolated the way they might have been in a bigger city; they were very much a part of the fabric of this whole neighborhood.

Yeah, a lot of people knew them as children growing up. Elmer was a box boy at the IGA, and also a paper boy, all the boys were paper boys.

From what I’ve been told doing this project those who knew them remember them as nice, friendly children, people liked them. I’ve heard that from many people: white; Japanese American; Jewish; Filipino…

Yes, mmhmm. They were good. [laughs] My husband and I both were good parents, I believe. They had some good manners and so forth. They had respect for other people.

Black Panther Demonstration. Seattle.
Photo: Eugene Tagawa

Yes. That did pay off.


Jumping ahead to the Panthers, Aaron told me because of the situation with the (hostile) police that they very quickly were keeping guns.

Oh yeah, and how did that affect me? Well, I got pretty used to it. I didn’t like them, but I did not see them. I knew they were in here somewhere but it didn’t really bother me because I used to get very nasty phone calls on the phone people threatening, “I’m going to kill your children.” I got a lot of nasty stuff like that. Then the police they had ways of hearing what you were saying even. I could spot them. I got so I could spot them over in the park pretending like they were playing tennis. Yeah, they were watching the house all the time and so I got used to it. I thought it was kind of funny.

And you weren’t frightened?


Had Mr. Pratt been killed at that point or did that come later (1969)?

Oh, I don’t know, some of these other things I don’t know about.

Still the phone calls… Well, you are a cool customer if the phone calls didn’t
scare you.

I said, “Try it.” [laughs] Yeah, it didn’t bother me, nuh-uh, because we all got pretty tough, I guess. Though, we didn’t let Michael join. We learned from WWII, don’t put all your sons on the same ship. Although later we knew all the kids were involved. 

I was talking to Mona Lake Jones? Do you know her? She’s a poet, she was involved in the Mt Zion Church.

Frances and Elmer vacation in Hawai'i in 1980.
Collection: Frances Dixon

No. My kids probably know her, but I don’t know those people.

She was saying that the people that were very involved with Mt Zion…

There were a lot of people who didn’t want anything to do with me, us.

She said that the people in the black community who were more philosophically aligned with Martin Luther King that after Dr. King was killed wouldn’t have shown up at the marches and were not overtly supportive…

I think they were afraid to. A lot of them were afraid to.

…but they thought, the Black Panthers need to try because everything else has failed. They respected them.

We became just very supportive of the children, whatever they did. I remember when there was a riot around here somewhere. I started parking the car around the corner; we had a little white Plymouth. I don’t know where I was going, maybe I was trying to see what was going on but I remember going out. I was going to the store or something. The police were out there hanging around and I thought, I’m just going to sit here in the car for a minute because there’s a lot of noise and shooting. The police came to the car and they looked in and saw me, but they said, “Oh, it’s just a lady.” Then they went on so I don’t know who they were looking for. It was pretty bad there for a while and my guys, you know, they did some bombing and stuff.

Your boys?

Mmhmm. Yep. I felt bad. Some places like Joe’s, the Chinese place, they didn’t bother them. They did not bother them nor the grocery store (the IGA), it was only certain spots that they would bother and they would not bother people like Joe. Joe was really fond of him (Aaron) because they knew him growing up anyway. When Aaron had his first child, the lady there she gave him a beautiful blanket and what have you for the baby.

Joe’s (Joe's Madrona Food Center) was run by a Chinese American. And Mr. Richlen who was Jewish had a store up on 23rd and Union, nobody touched his place either.

No. They had certain places that they’d bother. Anyway, that was part of the Revolution so I went along with it.

Photo: Collection Aaron Dixon

Did the neighborhood change a lot after the riot?

Yeah, a lot of blacks were moving out, they started moving out. They said, “Well, I’m moving south (to the south end of Seattle).” And I thought, “Well, move south.” Now, they moved south and now they wish they hadn’t moved. They wish they’d kept their butts here.

Yes. That’s true. Now, was it the black middle class that moved or was it just a whole swath through the community?

Well, I don’t know. Most people who lived in this area here (around 33rd Avenue in Madrona), we were pretty well middle class. Then others who were farther, a little farther out around Jackson, they might not have been as middle class. Most of the people in this neighborhood, the Melinsons, the Hardings next door, we all got along very well. The church was nice, the Madrona Church. I might have joined that if I’d known it was there before we bought the house, it didn’t matter if I was Methodist or not and they still do a lot of work over there. Lots of work.

Yeah, it’s a great part of the community.

Mmhmm. Now, I’m trying to think how I met my friends… Oh, Joanne was babysitting and that’s how I met Joanie Metcalf. I knew the Castles and Elaine. Once, my husband said about one friend of mine from church, “You know, you better watch her.” He was a very discerning person about people’s characters, he could tell there was something about
them he didn’t like. He could tell right away there was something wrong with them.
She went to our church and one day said to me, she never would come by my house, because, “You’ve got that big old black dog so I’m not coming in your house.” So she
never did.

You had a dog?

Yes, we had a dog. We’ve always had a dog. In fact, we moved him from 24th Avenue to here. How we got him was, we had just gotten back from a trip to Chicago. I was looking for the kids to come in and have dinner, we always said dinner at 5 pm and they weren’t sitting at the table. I asked, “Where are Aaron and Elmer?” Then they came and they had this dog with him and we said, “What are you doing with that dog?” They said, “That man said we could have the dog.” So we just looked at each other and went on eating and so that’s how we got Pal.

Frances Dixon on Michigan Ave, Chicago, 1949. (Wearing a dress she loved given to her by her husband Photographed by a professional photographer who asked to take her photo. Collection: Frances Dixon

So anyways, (that lady who didn’t like dogs eventually introduced me to) my friend, Pearl. Pearl was always into acting. She and I got to talking and I guess we got to talking so much that we were friends ever since after that. Always. She wasn’t too fond of too many black people; I found that out, too. Her people were racist she said; they were Italians from Aberdeen. She was from here (the States) but she was... (pauses) She and her husband used to be Communists. Her husband was a longshoreman, and she and I would talk, I think Elmer would fall asleep and Dell would be in the bed and we would be talking ‘til three or four o-clock in the morning.

She and I - we were just something else. They lived down on Madison. You know where Harrison School (now Martin Luther King Elementary, defunct) was?

On that ridge.

They lived up way on the top of there. There were three houses on one side.

I think that’s part of Denny Blaine, isn’t it?

Around the corner is Denny Blaine; it’s part of Denny Blaine, yeah. Well, that’s where Elaine lived, down in there. They all lived up in there. They had nice homes up in there. Their houses weren’t real big, but they were very interesting. Anyway, Pearl and I became very close friends.

Now, did any of those friendships get interrupted during the Panther time?

Oh no, they were very involved. Are you kidding? That’s how I became friends with them. That’s why we became friends because I was a Panther member, my kids were in the Panther Party.

Did you worry? Aaron told me that one day he was testing a gun and it blew up…

Oh, that’s another story.

He told me that after a while he was worried about who was in the Panthers (informers).

Yes. It’s just like in the government, it’s just like it is now. You don’t know, I don’t know who you are. You could be asking me a lot of questions and I don’t know anything about you. You could. Or your husband. So that’s how things work and things are still that way (meaning you don’t know who’s informing).

Did that make people treat each other differently after things like that started happening (informers, tampered with rifles)?

I don’t think so.

Now, I’m still trying to get back to my friend Pearl.

Pearl 3 row right; Peggy 2nd row right; Dell Castle 5 row next to Elmer, Frances 4th row, middle
Collection: Frances Dixon


So I met Pearl and like I said we became… Where is that picture of her? She came over here one evening, she always had these little bottles of liquor, in fact I've still got one. There were all kinds. She had everything you could think of, I don't know where she got all those bottles. One time she got upset with Dell, and came over here. I don't know how she got here because she didn't drive, with all these bottles. She says, “Come on, we're going to have a drink.” So I said, “Ok.” (show picture) So here is Pearl, right here, and that's her friend Peggy and they all both lived up on the hill.

Oh, she has a nice face.

Oh, she was wonderful.

Has she passed?

Yeah, they're all gone now.

I'm sorry.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You’ve had a lot of loss.

I had this picture of Pearl. Oh, that's Peggy.

She looks very kind.

And that's her husband. He's Jewish, a real Jew and she's Irish, a real Irish girl. This is, that's Doctor, oh gosh Gremel, Mr. Gremel the professor, remember I told you about her with the long pants. Here's Pearl, there's Pearl. Doesn't she look great?

Frances & Elmer with other friends. Collection: Frances Dixon

Yes, a nice warm face.

She was something else. So that was one of our parties. That's in the kitchen. There's Elaine and there's Elmer, there's Aaron. Yeah, right here - there's all three of my boys.

They were good-looking boys.  

And there's Pearl. We would all end up in the kitchen talking. There's Michael talking to Sussman; they loved to talk together. We used to have some good times. They would never get here ‘til about 10:30 and then we just started partying, having a good time. So yes, most of my friends have gone now they're all died, even this lady here.

Oh, I'm sorry.

Oh, That's ok. Well, you get used to that.

Anti-War Demonstration with the Black Panthers in attendance.
Collection: Aaron Dixon

Do you?

Yeah. I do. You have to go (on), may as well make up your mind. You don't win. But somebody's going to have to go.

Getting back to the Panthers do you develop an instinct for who you can –

Trust? Yeah, you do. Mmmhmm…with people period.

I interviewed Mike Tagawa - did you know him? He did the education program for the Panthers at the Presbyterian Church over here.

Oh really?

He was telling me that they could kind of figure out who the informers were because all of a sudden they’d disappear.

Oh you learned that. Oh, is that right?

Frances' Great-Grandmother; her Grandmother and her Great Aunt. Collection: Frances Dixon
Yeah, because it was clear somebody was informing and then all of a sudden somebody would disappear and they’d kind of think, “Ok, had to be him, had to be her, had to be whoever.”

Mmmhmm, mmhmm.

Well, my friend Pearl, like I said, they latched onto us right away because of our being involved in things like that (the Panthers). They were really up and all of them, even
the Gremels.

They were always over here. They bought most of their clothes at the second hand store. He gave Elmer a beautiful raincoat that he’d bought. They were just very nice people. They’d take us out in the evening out for coffee in the University District. Or they’d invite us over to their house in the north end, they had us over for dinner several times. We got along very well.

One day we had been out of town, just got back from Chicago and got a phone call. I think it was Elmer, said, “Mommy, Mr. Gremel’s been trying to get a hold of you, his wife, Marjorie, died. The last time they were over here she was kind of pickled and she said, “You know, I’ve got really bad heart problems.” I wasn’t paying her any attention and she died when we were away, just like that.

Elmer Dixon. Model Cities. Collection: Frances Dixon

And so her husband said, “You know, Marjorie has some things I know she would want you to have.” He gave me her typewriter and this old, I still have it up there, Persian wool coat, it was one of hers she’d picked up somewhere, and her little sewing kit that she had all these little things in, and all of her books, so she had belonged to the Black History Club. Yeah, she was a sweet lady. Just, just so different. Yeah, those pants she had on, she had this red suit and with those cuffs turned way up here. She didn’t care whether you liked it or not. She knew I wouldn’t care, or none of my friends.

Pearl was that way, too. She just picked me out (to be her friend). She was crazy about Elmer. Pearl, like I said, was from this family that they was very prejudiced against black people, but she just didn’t pay any attention to them.

She was a member of the Repertory Theater. Whenever she was going to be in a play she would invite my family, Elmer and I and the kids, to one of the rehearsals, so we were that close. We were quite close.

She had parties, this was one of the last ones she had, we were always gathering in her kitchen. She had kind of a smaller kitchen but a big living room area with a fireplace and everything. There was this black guy there, you really didn’t see too many black people there. He was kind of friendly and he said, “That’s my friend that I came with” he indicated a white guy. Finally, he whispered to me casually as we were by the stove, “You know we’re here watching you.” They worked for the FBI.

Did the people who invited you…?

No, they didn’t know anything about it, uh-uh. Pearl didn’t know that. So you never knew who was in your house.

Of course, my kids used to have meetings up at what they used to call the barn, it was a place there on Madison. There used to be a big warehouse up there, inside they had a lot of nice looking old dressers. They’d have meetings up in there. They told me about this so-and-so that used to come up there and they said, “You know, he’s an informant.” They knew he was an informant. Mmhmm. And another time, they told me about somebody else that was an informant.

Elmer Dixon, Sr. Model Cities. Collection: Frances Dixon

But at the party that guy told me. One day, my husband always went to the market on Saturday mornings, the public market. I had bought Elmer, my husband, this red wool cap, a Pendelton cap. So I always knew where he was, because he was a wanderer. He’d wander off and I’d be doing something and then just look for that cap so I could find him. That day, he’d wandered off while we were down there and here comes that same black guy. So, here goes me - we kinda looked at each other. I guess he had to act like he was really following us. He was just warning me. He was just one of those who could tell me they were watching us, he was like letting me know.

Why do you think he wanted you to know?

Probably because he’s black, I don’t know.

Maybe he was sympathetic.

Who knows. Yeah. But he didn’t have to do that. I’m sure he was with his friend or some other guys who worked for the FBI. He acted like he didn’t know me. But he had told me that at Pearl’s house we were being watched. And I’m sure we were.

I’m sure you were, too.

I’d get phone calls, and they were always watching our house. I could spot ‘em. You could always spot ‘em. And they were always watching the Panther office there on Thirty-fourth  Avenue. That’s when they accused Aaron of stealing a typewriter.

What was your husband’s attitude to the whole thing?

Pretty much like mine, we were on the same page. They would come by his job at Boeing. He lost a lot of chances to getting promotions because of the kids.

Yes, everything has a price.

One of his so-called friends ratted out on him and my husband, never really got over that. He said, “Now, if it hadn’t been for Ernie, I would have had a bigger job.” But (Ernie) was a (Uncle) Tom. I don’t know what he said, maybe it might have been telling what they knew about us in this house, I don’t know. And then his wife, see we knew them back in Champaign, Illinois (pause)


Yeah, their kids and our kids were little together. When Elmer got the job with Boeing, and then he (Ernie) heard about jobs out here, so he moved out here. Michael gave up his bedroom for him to stay with us for a while. Then we found a place for them to move over here, and his wife came out. That’s how we were friends with them, so-called friends. We were friends, with them but they weren’t (friends to us).

After the kids grew up and got older, his wife Naomi, on one evening my husband and I had gone over there to visit them. Something came up about the boys and she said to me, “I don’t want my daughter to have anything to do with your sons.” I said, “Oh you don’t? Well then, you don’t want to have anything to with me.” I said, “Come on, we’re leaving.” And I was not friends with her for a long time. They had their three girls, and those girls still called us “Mommy” and “Poppy.” They would come by, they still just liked the kids, our boys.

Did that happen very often where people that you thought you-

Oh, yes. Mmhm. Oh sure. I said to myself, oh, thought you were my friends.

So the Panthers just showed you who your real friends were, I guess.

Yeah, yeah.

Later when Elmer passed I was surprised she came over.  She changed after a while, she realized the girls were still our friends, anyway. She came over, just came in the house and sat there and didn’t say a word while we went to the cemetery and all had all of our services. Her husband died before my husband died, he had gotten lung cancer from smoking so much.

I didn’t even tell Elmer that Ernie had died but one day he says, “Ernie died, didn’t he?” He knew. She said to me, “You know, I used to come over and sit in your backyard.”  Mmhmm. She was thinking about her husband and things evidently maybe… I don’t know. She says, “I even came up here and sat with Elmer once.” She did. People are strange.

Can you be friends with somebody that…

That does that? I was never really close with her after that, no.

That would be hard for me, too.

No, as soon as she said that about my boys and that was it. Uh-huh. “Well, I don’t want them to have anything to do with your sons.” I said, “Well, you don’t want anything to do with them then, you don’t want anything to do with me. C’mon Elmer, let’s leave.” And that was it.
But you know what? It doesn’t pay to treat people bad because her husband died a terrible death. And she did too. I’m not saying it was… (pause) Still, I went to see her (when she was ill) because her sister and I had been very close friends. But I never could (forget). Well, Naomi and I never really really liked each other that much anyway. She was kind of hinky. Kinda high-hat.

Elmer & Frances, shortly after he'd become ill. Collection: Frances Dixon

What’s that mean?

High-hat. She came from a family in Florida where her father had quite a bit of money. Her father was a pharmacist. They had a big house. They had a house full of pretty girls so she was used to that and she always kept her maiden name (and hyphenated it with her married name).

Is that what people mean when they say “high yellow”?

Well, yeah, high yellow. She was bright, almost probably your color, but it doesn’t matter what color you are. You’d think she had gobs of money. She had that attitude, you know, a little above the rest of the people (that’s high hat). While “high yeller” is when you’re really light.

They would have called my mother “high yeller.” That type of person that thinks they look white or pretends like. Almost of my relatives, lot of them have passed over (passed socially as white), you wouldn’t (know) they might be your cousins somewhere down the line and you don’t even know it.

Frances' Mother. Collection: Frances Dixon

Yeah, well, I have a cousin, Cousin Howard. I said, “I don’t know how Howard passed (as white)” because he’s got that kind of maroon color like he could be a Greek or a Turk or something like. He’s got that kind of hair. But he always knows his family.

That’s good. People who pass (socially) and leave their family behind. That’s a tragedy.

Well, not really, they didn’t lose their family. I don’t know if their family knows about it, I think, I’m sure they do eventually.

I mean, not your family but people who decided, I can pass and so I’m never going to be seen with my family again.”

There are some… Oh, I can see that, well that’s…

That’s a tragedy.

I suppose. But there are some that, it’s family, these are a part of my husband’s people in this town and they were his cousins. He found out that they were living here, they were living somewhere in the south end. Well they were really gone over (passed into white society) [laughs]. They weren’t too happy to see us. They really weren’t.

They called my husband “Brother” They said, “Oh Brother, we’re glad to see you.” They were glad to see him but we never saw them again. His wife was white. His mother-in-law was white. They’d gone completely over.

Frances' Great-Grandmother with her siblings. Collection: Frances Dixon

I’ve got some cousins like that that have gone completely over. A young man that I used to date, his mother and my mother grew up together. Their mother was from England, Mrs. Ray, I always remember her, very nice lady, but she had these two good-looking sons. When I was a little girl, I remember them very well, these big men. They were contractors, they could do contracting, but the blacks could never join any unions. They could build things just as good as anybody else but that’s the way it is. So George and his brother, they just left and went over to the other side (white society) so they could make a living. 

And my mother was that way with her job. She changed her name, her work name. It was kinda funny because my kids knew that. We’d go downtown sometimes my mother would said, “Here comes one of my customers” so we all would fall back like we didn’t know her. We just thought that was so funny, that they could be so stupid. So we used to do that. She changed her last name to Shearson so they couldn’t find Sledge. That was her name.

So that’s “high yeller,” that’s when you’re looking white, but you’re not.

It’s a great injustice, this whole stratification by skin color.

Well, that you have to rely on something like that to make it, it is (injustice). And then some just completely go crazy and do like you said, just ignore their family, like the movie ‘Imitation of Life’ have you ever seen that? I saw the original one.

Oh, you did?

When I was about 9, 10. Do you know who was in the original? You probably wouldn’t know the actress, Claudette Colbert, have you ever heard of her?

I have.

Well, she was the mother. And Louise Beavers was the maid. She was a very nice looking black actress, but we didn’t call ‘em black then – colored.

One thing that I wanted to return to was, so you said that after the riots the neighborhood changed, a lot of black folks moved. I know from talking to some of the Chinese people who lived here they left about the same time, the Jewish people about the same time-

The Jewish people left way before that, they moved when we moved in here.

Ok, so in the late 50s the Jewish people were moving?

Well, we moved here in when did I say? '57. There weren't too many white people out here. They were all down that way east. We didn't have any white neighbors. The old lady next door lived there; she never spoke to me. Ever. She spoke to my husband, she loved the dog, and she'd speak to the boys, but she did not speak to Joanne and me.

Frances' grandmother in later years in Chicago. Collection: Frances Dixon


I didn't care. But she'd get on that piano of hers, it was a player piano, and sang. My husband said, “You hear her singing?” She's sing ‘Old Black Joe’ with the door wide open, she was playing. She was something else. She used to raise begonias.

She died after she married a guy, a Mr. Seudner. He was a very nice man and after she died, he was gonna sell us that house for nine thousand dollars. But we didn’t want it at that time. We didn’t want another house. No, but that’s the way it was then.

And then so after the riots, then who moved in? Did the houses with all those people moving out, did the houses sit empty?

A lot of them did, yeah. That happened even when Boeing closed, you know they said “Last one, out turn off the lights.” Do you remember that?

I read about it.

The house right back here was empty for a long time.

Did the neighborhood then feel sort of empty?

No, there was people living (here), everybody didn’t leave. And I think blacks started moving out when the riots were coming along, as I recall. I don’t know. And I think the housing opened up (Open Housing) more because when we came out here you couldn’t buy a house where you wanted, you know.

Red-lining and all that. Your house is a beautiful house.

This house my husband was told that it used to belong to that undertaker down there on Pine (now Chapel Bar), I can’t even think of the name of it. It was built in ’04 so there wasn’t a lot of property around here.

What was the neighborhood like, so after the riots?

Then the properties start going up and I guess blacks started to move. I’m trying to think… when the white’s started coming in.

Frances Dixon. Portrait. Madeline Crowley ©

Was that the 70s or the 80s?

No, it had to be before, it must have been, well my husband died in ’85 so they were coming in before that, before he died, so it must have been the 70s.

Somebody told me that in the 80s this neighborhood went through a tough time because of the crack (epidemic).


Did that affect you up here?

No. No, I know a man on our street, they’d say, “He’s smoking crack.” I didn’t know… None of that affected me so I don’t know. I don’t know about it because I’m not interested in all that stuff. I was too old. Aaron would know, or Elmer, but I didn’t know anything about it. Mm-mm. No. I did not know.

I do know when they (the blacks) start moving out, they wanted to move back in and they couldn’t because the property was too high.

We never attempted to use our house as a way of getting income. We never loaned or borrowed on it or anything.

Is that how a lot of people lost their houses by predatory lenders?

Sure. Mm-hm.

I found out about this man next door he rented his house and a lot of people were in that house, this white family. They were about to tear it up. They were a terror. They were setting fires on the back porch and they had cats and, oh, it was just terrible. So my husband told him (the landlord) he better get back here, “They’re about to kill your house.” Sure enough, after they moved out they burnt somebody’s house down in West Seattle. They were bad, bad people.

That house has had several owners over there, but the guy over there now he had borrowed some money on this house and fixed it up. He was about to get married and that’s when his wife-to-be got murdered over there.

His wife-to-be got murdered in the house?

Not in the house. Outside the house. It was in the papers, she’s been gone about ten years now. Her oldest daughter’s boyfriend killed her, shot her. Out front. Right out there.

Because the parents didn’t approve of the boyfriend, or…?

Something like that, yeah, they just got into an argument. He killed her, yeah. Shot her to death, mm-hm.

Black Panther Headquarters. 34th Ave, Madrona. Seattle.
Collection: Aaron Dixon

There was another murder on this block. The daughter of that family got involved in drugs, I knew her sister, I used to work with her at Group Health. She had been on drugs.

All those houses are gone now. They’re all turned over.

How does it feel to live in this neighborhood now, when it’s changed so much?

Oh fine, it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t bother me at all.

Well, that’s good because some people are pretty upset.

Well, they didn’t like the white folks moving back in. Yeah, that’s true. It is getting a bit white.

It is. Years ago I came here and I thought, “This is great.” It’s like being back on the east coast (in terms, then, of diversity). There’s all different kinds of people. I loved it and then soon after houses keep selling and it’s changing. So what I loved about it is going away…

Yes, because the (new) people do act different. There’s white neighbors. They seem all right they’re out all on the playground. Aaron noticed the playground is different, you know, the (new) neighbors were different and they’re not friendly. I think a lot of them have come from back Midwest or somewhere.

I moved here from the East Coast (New England) and I’ve lived in the Midwest too. I think people (from Seattle) are more unfriendly than in other places I've lived. In my case it’s not because of race it’s just, they’re often just not as warm or welcoming as you'd find elsewhere...  It can be very icy.

It is.

Courteous. But not warm.

No, they’re not.

When someone’s being friendly maybe they are from some other part of the country.

Some of the new people that move in this neighborhood are (from the rest of the country). And they can be friendlier [laughs].

Yes, that’s true. Some are friendlier. Still, I had words with one woman over in the park, a little smartass, I said, “You mind your own damn business.” I don’t take stuff off of nobody.

Yeah, I can see that. [laughs]

A million thanks to the wonderful Julia Eckels who did a thorough and accurate job of transcribing this long interview. 

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2016   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials


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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The CentralAreaComm.blogspot.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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