ATLANTIC CITY - The North Ohio Avenue house that Joi Dickerson-Neal and her sister, Dawn, inherited from their grandfather wasn’t exactly in move-in shape.
George Dickerson, the grandfather, hadn’t lived in the home for almost 15 years when he died in January of 2010, just a month short of his 100th birthday. But a racoon was living in the attic, along with a lot more critters that weren’t concerned with keeping the place up nicely.
“There was a dead rat — a petrified rat,” says Dickerson-Neal, 41, who grew up in New York, lives now in Los Angeles, spent her summers in Atlantic City as a girl — and was back visiting the other day, for the funeral of an old family friend from Atlantic City. “My grandmother died in 1988, and her purse was still at the door. Food was still in the cabinets, and there were raccoon droppings, fleas ...” and much more.
So she understands perfectly her “minimalist” brother-in-law’s response to what they found on that clean-out mission: “He was like, ‘Throw this stuff out,’“ Dickerson-Neal says.
But when she saw boxes of her grandparents’ papers being trashed, “Something told me to go in the Dumpster after them,” she says. “So I’m a real Dumpster-diver now.”
And what she came out of the trash with is history — family history, Atlantic City history, black history and aviation history, among other branches of a study this woman takes very personally.
She found letters from her father, a man she’d never known — because Buddy Dickerson, or George Jr., died just six months after Joi was born. So she treasures those letters, obviously, but the more important historical documents are the diaries she found from her step-grandmother, Edith Holland Dickerson, hidden in a crawl space under the house — along with a stack of letters to Edith from one of Atlantic City’s most famous residents of the first half of the last century.
Dr. Albert Forsythe lived and practiced in the city’s Northside neighborhood from at least the 1930s to the 1950s, but his name was known well beyond the city’s borders — and above them.
Because Forsythe made history in the sky, as the first black pilot to fly across the country and back, leaving from and returning to Bader Field in Atlantic City in April, 1933. He and his co-pilot, Alfred Anderson, from Bryn Mawr, Pa., flew round-trip to Los Angeles — in a plane called “The Pride of Atlantic City,” by the way.
Forsythe and Anderson also flew to Canada — Montreal, specifically — that year, which reportedly made them the first black pilots to cross an international border. And the success of those two missions led to third flight from Atlantic City, a 1934 “Pan-American goodwill flight” designed to take Forsythe and Anderson on a 12,000-mile, island-hopping route to nations across the Caribbean.
More than 50 years later, Forsythe told an audience ranging from Federal Aviation Administration engineers to high-school kids, at what’s now the William J. Hughes Technical Center, part of his motivation for those historic voyages. It sure wasn’t money, although he reminded the tech-center crowd that just six years earlier, Charles Lindbergh had won $25,000 for flying across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris:
“In my case, I hadn’t heard of anyone offering 25 cents,” Forsythe said in that Egg Harbor Township speech, March 3, 1986. “Some people didn’t understand why we were flying. This time when we were flying, there were a lot of things going on with civil rights. ... One of the reasons we flew was to help people all over the country to get their rights, civil rights.”
Two months after that speech, Forsythe died at age 88, in Newark, where he’d moved his practice in 1951, and Atlantic City joined in the mourning for an aviation pioneer who had gone so far to spread the city’s name — and to try to spread goodwill.
But back in 1934, from nearly every place his Pan-America flight stopped, Forsythe wrote at least one letter back home to Atlantic City — and often asked, almost begged, his friend Edith Holland to write back to him immediately, at whatever Caribbean capital was next on his itinerary.
Those letters to Dickerson-Neal’s grandmother led Joi to more famous names from American history, including the Tuskeegee Airmen, the black pilots who helped their country win World War II. Because Anderson was called on to be the lead flight instructor for the groundbreaking group, and he invited Forsythe to join him in training the young pilots.
So several of Forsythe’s early 1940s letters to Edith come from Tuskeegee, Ala. — and they lead Edith’s granddaughter to other, still better-known names in history.
One Forsythe letter to Atlantic City mentions that a special guest had just visited Tuskeegee — and that his friend “Al (Anderson) is really raisin’ hell here. He has got a swell outfit and the big bum took Mrs. F.D. Roosevelt up in a small plane on Saturday.” In other words, Forsythe’s former co-pilot was called to be the personal pilot to Eleanor Roosevelt, the nation’s first lady. And Dickerson-Neal would later find out that President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself was an early supporter of those history-making flights by Forsythe and Anderson.
But when she first found the letters at her grandfather’s house, “I was saying, ‘Who’s Forsythe?’“ says Dickerson-Neal, sitting at a lobby table in the Sheraton Atlantic City Hotel — where she and her mother, Diane Graves Dickerson, stayed on their latest visit to town.
“I got back to this hotel, (got on her computer), and (Forsythe) popped up everywhere,” Dickerson-Neal says, starting with his obituary, featured in The New York Times. “That’s when I knew this wasn’t just personal anymore, wasn’t just my family’s history. ... I stayed up all night reading” his letters, more of the papers she found, and more online about the famed pilot.
She’s done a lot more reading since then, including all of two years of Edith Holland’s diaries, from 1925 and 1927 — which she then transcribed onto a computer, to protect the original books and make the content easier to handle.
And although this isn’t just family history, what she found in those diaries was eye-opening stuff to Dickerson-Neal, who remembers her grandmother as a “very conservative, sophisticated lady,” the kind of woman who would be the recording secretary in an exceedingly polite social club.
She was all that, too, at least later in her life. But when she was young, Edith had an active social life that wasn’t all tea and cookies. She would stay up until 3 a.m. (and stay out dancing almost that late sometimes), and she was apparently courted by a series of men — including Dr. Forsythe.
But the two didn’t marry each other — the doctor married first and apparently hurt Edith, who then married George Dickerson, an Atlantic City school principal, in the mid-1940s. (George’s first wife had died at age 38, which is why Edith was actually George Jr.’s stepmother, and Joi’s step-grandmother.)
Diane Dickerson, of New York, Joi’s mom and an old Atlantic City girl herself, knew a much-younger Edith — but she smiles as she says even she was surprised to learn some of what’s in her mother-in-law’s diaries. They’re not looking to share any family secrets in the newspaper, thank you, but let’s just say they now have a different picture of the lady they knew.
“It’s very Roaring ’20s,” Joi says, laughing. “And when it got really juicy, she wrote in shorthand.”
So now this history-loving granddaughter is looking for someone to translate those sections back into English for her — but she’s struggled to find anyone who’s still lucid who knows how to read Pitman shorthand, and not just the more-common Gregg system.
But even without the shorthand, now Dickerson-Neal knows why she found Edith’s papers where she did:
“This diary was under the house,” she says, “because my grandmother was hiding it from my grandfather.”
Joi also found albums of Edith’s family pictures from apparently the 1880s up to the 1970s, and thanks to her grandmother’s “secretarial gene” — Edith actually was a secretary by trade, and met George Dickerson when she was assigned to the office of his Madison Avenue School — many of those pictures are identified for posterity.
That allowed Dickerson-Neal to painstakingly match up the photos from the albums with entries from the diaries in a detailed who’s-who-style document she created, a sort of companion scorecard to all the players in her grandmother’s life story.
Yes, you could say Dickerson-Neal is a woman almost obsessed with history. She studied psychology at Syracuse University, but she hopes to get her master’s in library science, partly to help her catalogue all the historical and genealogical studying she does — and not just for her own family. As a hobby, she also researches other people’s genealogy and “orphaned” pictures for them.
“This is fun to me,” she says, with the Atlantic City collection spread out before her. “It’s like a detective story. It’s forensics — that’s what it really is.”
To help her with her forensic detecting, she’s also been trying to track down any of Albert Forsythe’s survivors who are still living — or anyone who might have any of his papers. From some of what she found in the doctor’s letters to Edith, Joi believes Forsythe may have kept scrapbooks himself.
In the meantime, she has plenty to keep her busy with her research into her roots here — partly because she hopes to turn Edith’s diaries and pictures into a book. And she can’t help being fascinated by the Atlantic City history she found, even if she has fewer ties to the town now than she did when she started the project.
The family sold their grandfather’s Ohio Avenue home, in October. And those diaries and albums and letters Joi went into the dumpster for, or under the house, she’s had them appraised as being worth $10,000. She expects them to end up eventually in the black-history collection at Emory University, in Atlanta — but before that, she hopes they can be displayed in the Atlantic City area, where all this history was made.
(To contact Joi Dickerson-Neal, email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Contact Martin DeAngelis: