The Clansman’s Better Angel
“She loved God in a fashion some have called unconventional, but sincerely and gladly.” — Rev. Edwin McNeill Poteat, Jr. (1934)
Dr Elizabeth Delia Dixon-Carroll (4 Feb 1872 – 16 May 1934) “was a modern, in the finest sense of the word…an admirer of modern ways, fashions and schools of thought.” At least that’s what her pastor said about her in his memorial address at the tribute to her by students, alumnae, faculty, and trustees at Meredith College, the “Baptist Female University” opened in 1891 in downtown Raleigh. While “a significant public figure in North Carolina” when the car her husband was driving was struck by another at the intersection of Clark Avenue and Horne Street in West Raleigh in May of 1934, you might be more familiar with the work of her brothers.
One, Rev. Amzi Clarence Dixon, published a series of essays by clergy (1910 to 1915) that gave Christian fundamentalism its name, and another, Rev. Thomas Frederick Dixon, Jr., published a historical romance of the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan (1905) later adapted for Birth of a Nation, the first American motion picture screened in the White House — by Rev. Thomas’s friend and college classmate, Woodrow Wilson — which stimulated the formation of a second (early 20th-century version of this) “All American Made” (White) Christian Nationalist terrorist organization.
In 1916 “Brother Thomas” tried to erect a statue of their uncle, “Confederate” insurrectionist Leroy McAfee, on the old courthouse square (pictured above) in their Tar Heel home of Shelby. Initially met with some enthusiasm from the local public, the scheme fell through when it was discovered that Rev. Thomas wanted the statue of their uncle to be wearing his Klan mask. On the other hand, Elizabeth “was utterly impatient of the things that cramp and devitalize life,” which “made her militant, even to the point of differing with those closest to her.”
“Her deep reverence for things of the spirit found expression in being and doing rather than in talking about her convictions.” — Rev. Poteat (1934)
An accomplished physician and director of medical services, professor of physiology and hygiene, and infirmary physician at Meredith College for 35 years, Dr. Dixon-Carroll was the first (and only) female physician in Raleigh (at the time) and a member of the American Medical Association, the North Carolina Medical Society, and the Raleigh Academy of Medicine. She conducted chapel services at Meredith College, taught classes there, rendered medical aid to the students, and mingled with them in their daily life. “Her keen sense of humor, and her absolute frankness,” Catherine Moseley said in her student tribute to Dr. Dixon-Carroll in 1934, “together with her wide variety of interests in political and social problems, made her chapel talks and class discussions deeply interesting.”
“In the fall of 1918, when the influenza was overwhelming our state and city like a great deluge, Dr. Carroll so carefully guarded the health of the students, and directed their exercise, that not a single case developed at the· college until after the girls returned from the Christmas vacation. Even then only a few cases of the disease developed among the students from exposures while at their homes, and none of these proved at all serious.” — J. Rufus Hunter, Meredith Trustees (1934)
Dr. Dixon-Carroll was also an advocate for (White) women’s suffrage and youth welfare issues in the N.C. General Assembly during the early 20th century. In 1920 she campaigned for the Democrats statewide with another Shelby native, then Lieutenant Governor O. Max Gardner, and urged women to stand by the League of Nations. The Charlotte News described her as a “militant member of the party” and the “sister of Dr. Thomas Dixon, who has built plays and books on Southern democratic principles.” Yet Dr. Dixon-Carroll doesn’t appear to have agreed with all of her brothers’ “principles.”
“Her world believed it sinful for a woman to speak in church. She believed it necessary for the voice of women to be raised often and in many places. So she braved both orthodoxy and political suspicion and became a force among the politically minded women of her State. Her world believed in original sin and its inevitable issue. She believed there was more in sin than a theological predisposition and therefore advocated new treatments for women criminals, and put girls into Samarcand Manor when some of her friends would have put them in perdition.” — Rev. Poteat (1934)
According to Warren Wells (Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1986), the Dixon family was “born in Shelby of English and Scottish ancestry.” Of course their maternal great grandfather was one of those “swarthy Germans” (Benjamin Franklin), but we didn’t talk about that after “The war to end all wars.” And so it goes. Killed by a public menace that had been inflicting Tar Heels for over a decade by then, “resulting in more deaths and accidents than old John Barleycorn was ever accused of” (Frank Keener, 1920), Dr. Dixon-Carroll’s death was a parable of her life for Rev. Poteat (full remarks), whose memorial address ended as follows:
“I saw her just before she passed into the dawn of uncreated light. Her left hand was moving restlessly on the cover, as if impatient at delay. But her face was placid and undisturbed. That is my last recollection of her and it offers a fine parable of her life. Hands always restless, busy, exploring, discovering, ministering, comforting, healing, welcoming, serving, blessing; but on the face that reflected the inner quality of her spirit, always resting a benign calm that her busy hands or a hurrying, distracting world could never disturb.” — Rev. Poteat (1934)
And since her birthday (February 4) occurs during Black History Month, and there are no Black people in this story, I will leave you with links to recent pieces by fellow Tar Heels Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and (another Shelby native) Jonathan Jones for some reflections on these same troubling themes of identity and human behavior at the heart of our own times.
Christian Nationalism's Role In The Insurrection Was Four Decades In The Making
By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove…
“The past itself is not a narrative. In its entirety, it is as chaotic, uncoordinated, and complex as life. History is about making sense of that mess, finding or creating patterns and meanings and stories from the maelstrom.”
― John H. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction
Updated: February 4, 2021 — rewritten in light of current events and some new research findings.