By Lee Ann Caldwell
Antebellum Hancock County was in the black belt, a rich streak of fertile soil that grew the white bolls that made the South prosper. That cotton was produced by the enslaved men, women and children of African heritage, on whose labor the wealth of the South depended.
Hancock was a rich county and one of its wealthiest planters was David Dickson. Born on November 20, 1849, Amanda America Dickson was David’s daughter, the product of his rape of thirteen-year-old Julia Francis Lewis, the enslaved property of his mother. Amanda’s family said her father “became devoted to his daughter . . .” who was raised and educated in David’s household. She “learned to play piano; to dress with subdued elegance . . . and to behave like a ‘lady’ … ,” according to biographer Kent Leslie. Her education also included knowledge of finance and business — important skills in her adult life.
“She was kind-hearted, generous, and charitable, and her benevolent work was indeed extensive.”from the obituary of Amanda America Dickson Toomer
By 1860, David Dickson, who earned a widespread reputation as an agricultural reformer, was the wealthiest planter in the county. The Civil War, however, caused the loss of much of that wealth; for Amanda, the war brought legal freedom. As her father quickly began to rebuild using tenant farmers and establishing businesses including the Dickson Fertilizer Company in Augusta, Amanda also began to build her new life. In 1865, according to family history, Amanda married her white cousin Charles Eubanks in the North.
The next year, the couple had their first child, Julian, and Charles purchased land near Rome. Four years later, her son Charles was born. Shortly after that birth, Amanda returned to her father’s home in Hancock County, saying she wanted to be near her “papie.” Charles sought to get her back, but she refused. The issue was settled when Charles died in 1871. Her independence allowed Amanda to further her education when she attended Atlanta University from 1876-78.
Meanwhile, her father had begun to secure his daughter’s and grandsons’ futures. In the 1870s he built a “handsome” house for Amanda and her mother Julia and gave her some property. By the 1880s, he had deeded Amanda three-fourths interest in 13,000 acres of good land in Texas, as well as several thousand dollars of bonds. His work to protect his daughter proved prescient because in February 1885, he died suddenly, leaving Amanda devasted.
David’s death and his surprising will became news throughout the country. While Dickson left bequests to his nieces and nephews, most of his wealth went to his daughter with the caveat that she bequeath $100,000 to each of her sons, whom he had called his “little men.” How Amanda used this legacy was left to “her sound judgement and unlimited discretion . . . without interference from any quarter.” To discourage challenges to the will, anyone contesting it would lose their own bequest.
White relatives did contest it, first at the probate level, then on appeal to the Superior Court, and to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing that “the future of the Anglo-Saxon race, the traditions of the past, and the hope for the future all lay in the balance.” The Court decided, however, in favor of Amanda based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, making her one of the wealthiest Black women in the nation.
In July 1886, Amanda purchased a home on Telfair Street in Augusta, furnishing it elegantly including “the Dickson silver, oil paintings . . . an organ and piano and a bookcase of books.” She became involved in philanthropic works, saw both of her sons married, and welcomed grandchildren bearing family names — Julia Francis II, David II and Amanda America II.
In 1892, Amanda married a wealthy biracial farmer from Perry, Ga., but they had limited time together; she died the next year despite receiving the best medical care available. One obituary said: “though in possession of such riches, she made no gaudy display but lived a quiet, easy, and unpretending life. She was kind-hearted, generous, and charitable, and her benevolent work was indeed extensive.” Her legacy is preserved in the historic marker on Telfair Street that tells this complicated story of race and family in 19th-century Georgia.
Appears in the February/March issue of Augusta Magazine.