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How Erie's Ms. Dixon changed history 56 years ago

Plus, getting 'zozzled' with Yuengling.

April 29, 2022
Inside this edition: Two trivias for the price of one, Great Migration, personal plans, primary plans, getting 'zozzled' with Yuengling, and Lucky the bird.  

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Trivia twofer: Pennsylvania has how many counties? And which one of those counties formed last?

(We'll have a real stumper in this space each week. You'll find the answer at the bottom, but don't miss all the good stuff in between.) 
Armendia Dixon is pictured. (Photos courtesy of the Meadville Tribune)

Armendia Dixon moved carefully through town on her way to integrate a whites-only elementary school in Laurel, Mississippi, as its first Black staffer.

It was 1966, more than 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in education, and states like Mississippi were still bastions of resistance. To this day, Dixon is only mostly sure she wasn’t followed that morning, saying, “If I was, I didn’t know it.”

When Dixon arrived at Stainton Elementary, she was greeted by the principal, whose first and last words to her were a warning.

“We don’t want you here,” Dixon recalled her new boss saying. “We don’t agree with this move and you will not be invited to any staff meetings or staff affairs. When you come in you can go right to your room, do your work, and leave when you get done.” 

The principal never spoke to her again, and within a year, Dixon was gone. 

She left for a new job at a new school more than 1,000 miles away in Erie, Pennsylvania, where a late-stage Great Migration pipeline from Laurel— the same detailed by the Erie Times-News in February — would inextricably link the two cities.

By the turn of the 21st century, 10% of Erie's population was Black and nearly half its Black residents had family ties to Laurel, the paper adds.

Dixon, now in her 80s and living in nearby Meadville, is still an educator and serves as director of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mentoring Program at Meadville Area Middle School. 

With the 68th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling weeks away, we talked to Dixon about her experience desegregating Stainton, the “beautiful” moments in a hellish year, reflections on her career, and what she found in the North. 

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

PA Local: How were you chosen to come to Stainton? 

Dixon: The school’s superintendent received a telegram [from authorities] saying by morning the large city schools must be integrated. I was already teaching at an all-Black school in town.  

So I got a call in the middle of the night. It was something else in my house that night, honestly. We didn’t go back to sleep. We talked about what had happened to other people who had done this, including those children in New Orleans.

I had to think about it. But my parents, who were deep into civil rights, reminded me that they and so many others had been fighting for a long time for that day to come. 

PA Local: So you took the job as the school’s part-time librarian. How were you treated?

Dixon: The principal said that no students were to use the library while I was there. And it wasn’t much of a library to begin with, you know. I really needed to establish one.

But the most beautiful thing about being there, and perhaps the only beautiful thing, was that each day when the students lined up for their classrooms after recess, when they passed by the library and their teacher couldn’t see them, they would wave at me and smile. I always looked forward to that. 

PA Local: Would all or most of those children have been white?

Dixon: There was one Black student whose parents allowed him to come in as the first Black kid at that school. I’ve tried but to this day I can’t remember his name.

PA Local: You told the Erie Times-News that you took the job in Erie because your father was ill and you needed to earn more money. What were your impressions of the city?

Dixon: Things weren’t too different [from the South] at the time. It’s just that they tended to be more subtle. Blacks also had hard times getting homes. There was a riot my first week there in 1967 — it wasn’t at East High School where I taught, but my goodness.

I also formed a lot of friendships that were lasting. The staff at East High School made such a difference in my life. They looked after me. One of my friends helped me get a house because I couldn’t get a house. And that allowed me to bring my parents to Erie. 

PA Local: There are still very few teachers of color there or statewide. Why do you think that is?

Dixon: I’ve seen a lot of improvements in Erie public schools. ... But we have to keep working to tear down the walls [when it comes to opportunities for teachers of color everywhere]. It seems like a never-ending battle. 

PA Local: Do you have any plans to retire? 

Dixon: No, I’m just going to take my orders from the good Lord. When he tells me, I’ll retire. 

PA Local: Did you ever go back to Stainton Elementary? 

Dixon: Oh yes. And when I got there I was greeted by the principal again. Only this time it was an African American woman.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

» Friday, April 29: Penn State's student-run music festival, Movin' On, is back with Jack Harlow, Aminé, and Fitz and The Tantrums.

» Friday, April 29: Catch a movie at the season opener of the beloved Mahoning Drive-in Theater. Tickets are $10. Campouts are $20.

» Saturday, April 30: The JFilm Festival, Pittsburgh’s largest Jewish cultural event, is on through May 8. Showings are in person and online

» Saturday, April 30: Carvers from around the world are in Elk County for Ridgway's Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous. Here's how to join them.

» Saturday, April 30: Famed playwright August Wilson's namesake block party kicks off in Pittsburgh's Hill District after a two-year hiatus. 

» Sunday, May 1: Cheer on the Pittsburgh Marathon, which is back in person for the first time in three years, Pittsburgh Magazine reports

» Sunday, May 1: Philadelphia's Broad Street Run — the nation’s largest 10-miler — is also a go. The Inquirer has a fun field guide.
Checking on the bbs with Michael R. Send us your Pennsylvania pics by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania

» One thing to know: Monday is your last chance to register to vote in the May 17 primary. Once registered, you can request a mail ballot here. Have more voting questions? See Spotlight PA's complete primary guide.

» One thing we learned this week: During prohibition, Yuengling made near-beers and an early energy drink that Thrillist says "was like a version of Four Loko that flappers would drink if they wanted to get zozzled."

» One thing that made us smile: A pet cockatiel was found three years after flying the coop in Ephrata. The bird, named Lucky, showed up at a church and confirmed its identity via The Andy Griffith Show.

» One place worth visiting: Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, the creation of archaeologist Henry Chapman Mercer, has more than 44 rooms, 32 stairwells, 21 chimneys, 18 fireplaces, and 200 windows.

» One book worth browsing: Pitt's famed Nationality Rooms put out a cookbook almost 40 years ago that's full of global cuisine. Here's a glimpse, via Reddit. (The Syrian Salad comes highly recommended by me.)

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

» Your guide to the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor

» A guide to the overlooked race for Pa. lieutenant governor

» Election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you

» Big donations to GOP guv hopefuls: Who gave and how much?

» Big donations to Democrat Josh Shapiro: Who gave and how much?

🗳 Support this public-service election and voting coverage now.
There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania and Lackawanna County was the last one formed, breaking away from Luzerne County in 1878. 

According to a 1977 article in The Lackawanna Historical Society Bulletin, the creation of Lackawanna County followed a decades-long political fight that spanned two state Constitutions (there have been four total) and ended with then-Gov. John Frederick Hartranft, a Republican, issuing a proclamation on Aug. 13, 1878 creating the county with Scranton as its seat.

For reference, the oldest counties in Pennsylvania — Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia — were formed almost 200 years earlier in 1682.

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