MADISON — A worldy native son, Fletcher Dalton can transport you to a Paris opera house from his living room, then shift to memories of his mother stoking schoolroom stoves before she taught each morning.
These fundamental stories of his personal history and the precious heritage of his small southern hometown have become the 80-year-old’s focus in recent years. And he is inspiring several generations to join him in acknowledging and chronicling the black history of this town of about 2,200 where a pre-Civil War black settlement Freetown once thrived.
Through several years of seminars, Dalton has led adults and children alike in the discovery of their family and regional history.
On a recent afternoon from the home in which he was born in 1939, he discussed his plans for the upcoming third annual seminar, “Remembering Freetown.’’
“I don’t want the history to be forgotten, and so many of our elders are slipping away,’’ said Dalton, a longtime publishing house editor, who returned to Madison in 2001 after 40 years of living near Boston and traveling the world.
His Aug. 17 gathering at the Madison-Mayodan Public Library will be an opportunity for community members to gather and share stories and genealogical and historic records related to Freetown, once defined along the west side of what is now Madison.
Dalton’s own Wooten Street family place falls within the boundaries of the old Freetown, a name used to refer to the area well past desegregation.
“Having lived in Rockingham County most of my life, I had never heard of Freetown until Fletcher’s program three years ago,’’ said Valencia Abbott of Reidsville, a teacher and fellow historian, who teams with Dalton to lead the Freetown events. “And I am 55 years old and a history teacher.”
For Abbott, Dalton has “brought to light that hidden history — history that has always been there, but was buried, neglected, and in some cases, intentionally manipulated in order (that people not) find the truth,’’ she said.
“Fletcher has opened
an avenue for all of us to discover our true beginnings as Rockingham residents. And for the Black community, that is vital because much of our history did not make it to the history books. So we need more Fletcher Daltons to show … to bring us back to our past, so we understand the here and now.’’
Education meant freedom
Growing up in a segregated South, Dalton enjoyed a life fueled by education. “My mother was an educator and education was very big in our family because it was a way to get things … a way to get from Point A to Point B,’’ Dalton said. “Without education, you wouldn’t progress.’’
The son of Mabel Galloway Dalton and William Elbert Dalton, he was a youth with a keen interest in the arts and a life lived separate from white children.
“Schools were segregated, so if you didn’t go to school with them, you didn’t play with them,’’ said Dalton, whose speech is measured and elegant.
“We did all the ‘white things’ a black family could do, though,’’ Dalton said, describing his mother’s indefatigable spirit.
“My mother drove my father to work every morning, drove me and my sister and other kids to school and taught school (in a room she heated). And when the day was over, she would come home and prepare meals for us, go get dad from work, then do her own paper work. After that, she would take us to Reidsville for music lessons.”
The beloved longtime Hayes Chapel School teacher also took special care to ferry Dalton and his sister, the late Matilda Faye Dalton, to a Greensboro kindergarten where she believed they would get the highest quality early education, Dalton said.
By about age 6, Dalton was making his own plans — big plans.
Combing the newspaper one day, the precocious youngster saw an advertisement for a performance by Arthur Rubenstein at the former Women’s College in Greensboro, now UNC-Greensboro. As a piano student, Dalton sensed the opportunity to see a performance by the famed Polish American classical pianist was important.
“I was determined as a child to hear every great singer, every great actor, every great movie star …,’’ Dalton said. “I wanted all of those experiences, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had many of them.’’
It was the Rubenstein concert that was “the first cultural event of major importance I ever attended,’’ he said. “I said to my father, ‘Can you take me to this concert?’ So, he didn’t know what to say, and my mother didn’t know what to say, so they agreed and said, ‘Why not. Let’s see if we can get tickets.’’’
The family had no idea whether a white college would even permit them entry to the event, Dalton explained.
But the small family headed to Greensboro as they did most every weekend, and Dalton’s parents were able to purchase tickets. “They were surprised. So we went together. It was a wonderful concert, and we came home as though nothing momentous had happened,’’ Dalton said with a chuckle. “But needless to say, there was not another black person at the concert.’’
Classical music was not alien to Dalton’s father, a courier for Mayo Mills. He, in fact, was a lover of opera who enjoyed Metropolitan Opera broadcasts via radio most Saturday afternoons. “I owe much of my interest in opera to my father,’’ Dalton said.
His mother’s tenacity in seeking higher education guided Dalton in the same direction.
“My mother, like other (black) teachers, would go to New York in the summer for advanced degrees. Because North Carolina, or at least the county, would not pay for black teachers to get master’s degrees,’’ Dalton said. “It was very funny. They couldn’t get funding for advanced schooling, and when they went to New York they got to learn the newest things in education, then they came back and (North Carolina) had to pay them more than the white teachers,’’ Dalton said. “We were very proud of her,’’ he said, noting his sister followed his mother’s path and also attended Columbia University for graduate work in education.
By 1955 at 16, Dalton graduated from Charles Drew High School in Madison and headed to Fisk University in Nashville where he majored in English Literature.
“Fisk was one of those schools that had relations with the Ivy League, so every semester they would send their professors from white schools. Many of them were our best teachers because they had more exposure,’’ Dalton said. “They had traveled in Europe and had even met some of the authors of the day. So it was a wonderful experience. I wasn’t expecting an integrated faculty.’’
Positioned near Tennessee State University, another historically black college, Fisk was a welcoming environment for Dalton where cultural and academic resources abounded.
And while the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, Dalton said he and his classmates were reluctant to demonstrate for fear they would disappoint their hard-working parents who had sacrificed a great deal for them to attend college.
”Many of us didn’t want our parents to think they had sent us away to college just to get hurt. Because some of that hurt led to deaths,’’ Dalton said. “It wasn’t cowardly. No, I didn’t want my parents to think they’d saved and scraped and sent me away to school, only to see me get badly hurt.’’
Such hurt was close to home.
“My sister had horrifying treatment in Washington,’’ Dalton said. “She was participating in a march for freedom and she was herded, along with lots of other people, into a police van which was left in the sun for the whole afternoon. I think she was found unconscious. Many others were unconscious.’’ His sister made a full recovery from the incident, but did not share the bad news with her parents.
Boston University to Europe
From Fisk, Dalton made his way to Boston University to a graduate creative writing program. And from BU, he was off to Austria to study German at the University of Vienna. Europe felt like home, especially Salzburg, a city Dalton favored because it was home to Mozart, a favorite composer, he said.
Dalton extended his academic trip and made a grand tour of Europe, catching trains, ships, and sampling a rich cultural feast .
All of the men in his father’s family, save his dad, had traveled the world through military service. “And since I didn’t go to the military, I decided to see the world myself,’’ Dalton said.
From Vienna, it was on to Paris to the opera, to stage plays … it was wonderful,’’ said Dalton, who eventually treated his father to an evening at the opera in Paris where they heard vaunted soprano Leontyne Price perform.
Another landmark experience for Dalton was a trip his entire family made to Italy where they stayed in a hotel beside Rome’s Colosseum.
Far now from that continental routine, Dalton lives a more peripatetic life, walking to the nearby library, and having coffee and conversation with friends at the Mad Bean downtown. He also makes time to serve on the board of directors for the Museum & Archives of Rockingham County.
Dalton is also accessible to youngsters who want to learn more about their heritage. Trenton Phelps is one such teen who has followed Dalton’s lead in investigating the history of Freetown.
“Mr. Dalton impacted my life by telling me the history of Freetown and some of the unknown history of Madison, including the people that lived there,’’ said Phelps, 17, of Madison.
Phelps, inspired to learn more after attending Dalton’s Freetown event last year, helped this year to refurbish Freetown’s historic black cemetery called Citizens Cemetery.
“I wouldn’t have known ( about the history) without his help. Mr. Dalton is also very passionate about history and helping others understand history. His idea of spreading this historical knowledge and preserving it has helped me see such ideas in more projects I’m involved in, as well, especially Citizens Cemetery,’’ said Phelps, who helped clean tombstones and chronicle forgotten burial plots dating back to the slave era.
Join the Remembering Freetown event, Aug. 17 at 1:30 p.m. at the Madison-Mayodan Public Library. For more information, call Fletcher Dalton at: (336) 932-3521.