Black History Personified: Alyce L. Dixon

She lived to be 108.

That, alone, is awe-inspiring, but there was so much more to Alyce Lillian Dixon than just birthdays. Hers was a remarkable life—one most worthy of highlighting as we begin Black History Month.

Though I had heard stories about the spry legend, born in Boston but living just a short distance from the Library of Congress, I never had the pleasure of meeting the nation’s oldest living female World War II veteran in person. Not until I learned of her passing late last week did I realize what an opportunity I had missed.

Thankfully, the Veterans History Project (VHP) holds not one, but three interviews of Dixon discussing her life before, during and after her time serving as a member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), assigned to the segregated 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in the European Theater. An audio recording of one of those interviews, conducted when Dixon was 94, is accessible here. In it, Dixon shares her unusual reason for enlisting in1943. After several doctors told her there was nothing they could do, she thought the Army would have a cure for her vitiligo, a noncontagious skin condition that left her looking “spotted up.”

I had an idea the Army just knew everything. So I said, ‘Well let me join and find out what I can do about it.’

Unfortunately, Army dermatologists had no cure to offer either. They only confirmed what she had been told previously, that her light brown skin would slowly turn completely white—a process that ended up taking 20 years. Nonetheless, Dixon went on to proudly serve her country for three years.

Stationed first in England then in France, Dixon was one of more than 800 African American women responsible for sorting and distributing about 60 million pieces of backlogged mail and packages to U.S. soldiers. Dixon said they worked as best they could to accomplish this task, the saddest part of which was returning bundles of mail sent to deceased soldiers by their unwitting wives and sweethearts. On the other hand, Dixon and her comrades were often amused when they came across packages from parents, which contained food items like fried chicken, cookies and cake.

You see, the room was full of mice and rats…and they had destroyed a lot of them, so we couldn’t do anything with [the packages].

Still, another challenge the 6888th faced was identifying intended mail recipients when the sender left out pertinent information, such as the soldier’s real name or their military identification number. Dixon said letters and packages often arrived only labeled with nicknames like, “Buster” or “Sonny.” Understanding the important correlation between correspondence from home and service members’ morale, the women were often required to do some detective work in order to complete deliveries.

The historic unit accomplished their mission faster than anyone expected and received many accolades as a result. Decades later, you can hear the pride in Dixon’s voice as she recalls reading about her unit in the newspaper soon after returning stateside. In fact, I can hear many things in Dixon’s voice—intelligence, lightheartedness, resilience and a youthfulness seemingly unaffected by age.

Gwendolyn Copeland

VHP volunteer interviewer Gwendolyn Copeland.

A few years ago, VHP volunteer interviewer Gwendolyn Copeland recorded a video interview of Dixon, and submitted it to VHP. I recently asked Copeland to share with me what she remembered most from that day. It was their first encounter that immediately came to mind:

Ms. Dixon was seated next to the nurses’ station talking actively to a staff nurse. I introduced myself, and she looked up at me from her wheelchair, nonplussed. I would learn that she was the celebrity on her floor. I followed her to her home/room that favored a college dormitory room—cluttered with plastic flowers, pictures of herself with President and Mrs. Obama, pictures of about 1,000 marching WACs crossing the Champs Elysees in Paris in 1945, all perfectly coordinated. Ms. Dixon interrupted my revere as she hopped onto her twin bed. She still had a Massachusetts brogue.

It comes as no surprise to me that the woman behind that voice would be capable of hopping onto a bed. Of course!

I mourn Dixon’s passing, but I will always regard her as the personification of Black History. No, American History. Make that World History.

Know a living legend who served? Interview them for VHP. Find out how at www.loc.gov/vets.

Consider Making Monday a Day On, Not a Day Off

Every year, on the third Monday of January, America pauses to celebrate the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His widow, Coretta Scott King, along with many civil rights leaders, public figures and everyday people campaigned against the odds—and many resistant politicians—to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. I […]

Faces of the Veterans History Project

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Trite as these sayings may be, they offer possible explanations for why we find portraits—whether they are painted, drawn, or photographed—so compelling. Anyone who has visited the National Portrait Gallery (my personal favorite of the Smithsonian museums), or browsed through […]

Reflections on the Life of a Native American Marine

November 10, 2015 marks the 240th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Semper fidelis! It just so happens that this birthday falls during November, the month set aside to celebrate the rich history and culture of Native Americans/American Indians. Interestingly enough, while recently doing some research for a media event, I came across a […]

Happy 15th Birthday, VHP!

Happy 15th birthday to the Veterans History Project! On October 27, 2000, the 106th Congress signed Public Law 106-380, an act “to direct the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to establish a program to collect video and audio recordings of personal histories and testimonials of American war veterans, and for other purposes.” […]

Disabled, Yet Undeterred

I confess that, until joining the staff of the Veterans History Project (VHP) six years ago, I had not really given much thought to the plight of disabled veterans. Like most people, I had seen veterans with scars, burns and missing limbs, and probably unknowingly encountered many more with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but I […]

Collection Spotlight: Anthony D. Lopez

Due in part to the well-known HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which profiled the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, the accomplishments and bravery of World War II paratroopers are well known. And deservedly so—I can’t imagine hurling myself out of a plane under the best of conditions, let alone while dodging enemy bullets […]