February 20, 2019

Ida Belle Dixon, Longtime Princeton Resident, Will Celebrate Her 100th Birthday in March

BELLE’S STORY: “You want people to respect you as a human being. And I do my best to respect others. When I look at a person, I look at God’s creation. I accept who they are, and I try to love everyone, even though I may not always agree with them. One of the problems is that people judge others before they even get to know them.” Princeton resident Ida Belle Dixon has a long history of finding the best in others. (Photo by Lance Liverman)

By Jean Stratton

How to tell Ida Belle Dixon’s story?

During her 100 years of living, she has witnessed history, and made her own. She has endured poverty and hardship, experienced joy and love, all the while sustained by her deep Christian faith.

She has chosen a life of service to others, helping children, families, friends, and relatives, making a difference in their lives that has continued through the years.

Known as Belle, Ida Belle, Mom Dixon, Mother Dixon, and Sister Dixon, she gladly answers to all of these appellations.

By whatever name she is known, however, there is no question that she is a true Princeton treasure.

Role Model

During her more than 80 years in this town, she has reached out to so many — all ages, all colors, all backgrounds — that her kind spirit and mellow wisdom have made her a role model in the community.

Belle’s story began in Sylvester, Georgia, on March 9, 1919. The daughter of Harriet and Henry Ford, she was one of seven children. The family lived as tenants on a farm in a very rural area, and Belle began working in the fields as a young child.

She never knew her father, who had left the family, and her mother did her best to make a home for the children. No indoor plumbing, electricity, or other necessities were available in the house, and life was a struggle.

“When I was 7, I began working in the fields picking and chopping cotton,” remembers Ms. Dixon. “Our other crops were sugar cane, peanuts, corn, velvet beans, and peas. We also had chickens, cows, and pigs, so we basically had all our food from the farm. My mother only got flour and sugar from the store. She also bought muslin cloth by the yard, and then she’d make sheets, pillowcases, and our clothes from it.”

Tin Tub

“I didn’t mind working in the fields, although it was hard work, and it could be very hot,” continues Ms. Dixon. “Also, every night, we had to wash all the dirt from the fields off our feet. We had a tin tub outside, which we could bring in for a bath.”

Her schooling was very limited, and it necessitated a two- to three-mile walk to attend class. “I started school when I was 6, and went until the seventh grade. They didn’t have books for us, and the parents were supposed to buy them. Most people were too poor to do that, so we either had to borrow some, or occasionally, white people would get a few for us.

“The only book we had in the house was the Bible,” says Ms. Dixon. “My mother could read and write, although she only went through the second grade. I didn’t go to high school until I was 15, and by then, we had moved into town, and were nearer the school. I was only able to go for two years, and I borrowed books from the other students. I had a very good memory, though, and I could memorize what was in them.”

Church was hugely important for black families in the poor rural areas of the South. It was not only the religious, but also the social focus of their lives. Ms. Dixon was baptized at the age of 9, but even before that, she was an active participant at Sunday School.

“When I was 5, I began singing in Sunday School. I knew gospel songs because my mother played them on an old phonograph, and I loved to sing. My grandfather was a minister in the Baptist Church, and I saw him and my grandmother when we visited for family reunions, and they’d tell us stories.”

27 Children

Ms. Dixon learned from them that her great-great-grandmother had been a slave, and the mother of 27 children. “She was what was known as a ‘breeder,’” she explains. “Certain young women were chosen to reproduce, and various men were selected to be the fathers. Some of these were Native Americans who lived near by. The offspring were then sold to other owners. I don’t know if my great-great-grandmother had kept any of these children, but we were able to trace our line to her.”

At the age of 10, Ms. Dixon was asked to help a white family, also tenants on the farm, when the mother was expecting her fourth child. “There were already three other little ones, and they wanted me to take care of them, and do the cooking. I had watched my mother cook, so I knew how. I stayed with the family for quite a while.”

When Ms. Dixon and her family moved into town, it was the first time she became aware of racial discrimination in the form of “White Only” signs for water fountains, facilities, shops, and restaurants.

As she explains, “The situation in the South then was that you just accepted it because you knew nothing else. In the very poor areas, there was no opportunity to learn about other places. We had no radio, magazines, or newspapers. We just knew that life was hard, and that was the way it was.”

She did not allow these examples of discrimination to embitter her. “I’ve never paid a lot of attention to it. I’m a different kind of person. I have a very strong sense of myself and have had from a very young age. I know who I am, and I am comfortable with who I am. If people don’t want me in a certain place, then I don’t want to be there. I have other places to be. I also set very high standards for myself.”

Her strong faith has reinforced this attitude, she explains. “I believe I am who God wants me to be. I do think that you have to stand up for yourself, but you don’t have to look for trouble.”

Other Opportunities

When faced with acts of discrimination, Belle found ways to diminish them. An example occurred when she worked temporarily in a shop in town with a white clerk. As she recounts the incident, “One day, I wore a dress with a collar that I had embroidered my initials on. ‘I B F’ for Ida Belle Ford.

“The clerk looked at my collar, and said ‘What’s that for? I Be a Fool?’ I didn’t get mad. I told her what the initials were for, and then I left that job. I thought she was an ignorant woman, and by then, I knew I had other opportunities.”

Another incident also took place in town, when she and a friend went to a movie. “Black people had to sit upstairs, and this was right before Thanksgiving. If you held a certain ticket, you could win a turkey. Well, I won! You were supposed to go downstairs to get it, but I wouldn’t go where I wasn’t wanted, so I waited until they brought the turkey upstairs to me. I wanted to take it home to my mother. This was quite something since the turkey was still alive!”

Whether it was not being able to try on a dress in a store, encountering restrictions on where to walk on the sidewalk, or facing the innumerable other indignities endured by black people in those days, Ms. Dixon was resolute in her determination and belief that she could, and would, have a better life. She saw an opportunity for that in a move to Princeton.

“My aunt was living in Princeton then, and she offered me the chance to come and live with her,” says Ms. Dixon. “I was 18, and it was my first train ride. I arrived at five in the afternoon, and my aunt immediately took me to the First Baptist Church.    

“Church was a major part of our lives, and my aunt was very strict about it. I was very glad to go to church, but I wanted to do some other things too.  For one thing, there was a boy in the neighborhood, and I wanted to ride his bike.”

Uncle Oscar

“That boy was my Uncle Oscar,” notes longtime Princeton resident and historian Shirley Satterfield. “I’ve known Mother Belle for 40 years, and she has contributed so much love and longevity to the community. When you see Mother Dixon, she just exudes love.

“And how nice she is. When my mother passed away some years ago, Mother Dixon said to me, ‘Shirley, now I can be your mother.’  It was so thoughtful and kind.”

Although Ms. Dixon enjoyed Princeton in 1937, she had second thoughts about her aunt’s strict guidelines and no dating policy, and decided to return to Georgia, where she took a job cooking for a white family. She also met her husband-to-be Levy Dixon, and they soon returned to Princeton.

“There were more opportunities here,” she explains, “and I was looking for the opportunity to be the best that I could be. There was so much less chance of that in the Georgia of those days.

“When I came to Princeton, I loved it right away. Everyone was very friendly, and it was the Garden State. There were farms and gardens everywhere. My aunt lived on Clay Street, and there were community gardens that lots of people could work in.”

She hastens to add that while she appreciated looking at the flowers, she did not garden herself. “I had done so much work in the fields in Georgia, I said there would be no more digging in the dirt once I left!

Trolley Cars

“And when I came to Princeton in 1940, there were trolley cars. That was the way to get to Trenton if you were going shopping. In Princeton, we heard the radio, read the newspapers, and knew what was going on. And, it was here that I saw my first washing machine.

“I was very comfortable. I enjoyed walking around, looking at the gardens, and seeing all the people. There wasn’t the same kind of discrimination that there was in the South. That isn’t to say that there was no prejudice, but it never bothered me. It was much less than in Georgia, and there were no ‘White Only’ water fountains, etc. I liked it because you could live your life the way you wanted to.”

“Later, I was able to bring my mother here,” she continues, “and also my brother, John Henry Ford, came, and he was a minister for a long time in Skillman. I really wanted to help my mother. She worked so hard, and I wanted her to have a better life. I grew up without a father, and I gave all my love to my mother.

“I still love Princeton, although it has changed. But I would rather live here than in any other town or city I ever visited. This is a special place.”

Ms. Dixon and her husband found work as a couple in 1940 — she as a cook, he a chauffeur — for several families, and then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, she worked at the Belle Mead Army Depot, packing metal items for use in machinery for the war effort. Then her husband was drafted, and served overseas in the Army.

After the war, Ms. Dixon focused on her work as a “family retainer” for many families in Princeton. It was here that she found her true vocation as a loving mentor and friend both to the children and the adults she met.

Good Listener

“I loved this work. I loved being with children and listening to them. I’m a good listener, and if you listen, children will tell you things. Remember, the children are always watching you and noticing what is going on. They hear the language spoken in the house and how the people react to each other. You never know what a difference you can make.

“You have to remember that your behavior affects others. I always tried to have the children I took care of understand that. Not all parents teach their children manners. I learned manners from my mother. She insisted on it. No bad language was allowed. It was very important to tell the truth. Also, to be respectful and trustworthy and responsible.”

Ms. Dixon imparted these values to the families she helped, and without exception, the children of these families have remained her devoted friends.

In one family, there had been some troubled relationships, and one of the daughters, then 11 or 12, was angry when she wasn’t allowed to do what she wanted.

“She slammed the door, and let loose a stream of profanity,” recalls Ms. Dixon. “I took her upstairs and said ‘You will not use that language when I am in this house. It is disrespectful and unacceptable, and I will not allow it.’ She never used it in front of me again.

“And later, this same girl came to me and said, ‘Belle, there was no love in our house until you came.’”

Learning Experience

The children loved Belle not only because she set standards, but because she was also fun to be with, and made caring for them both an entertaining and a learning experience.

Ms. Dixon believes that she, too, has benefited from her experiences with the families and the children. “I felt I learned a lot. I had not had much education, and I could learn from them. For example, one young girl, Alison Hwong, told me to add an ‘e’ to Belle. It was my middle name, but I had been spelling it Bell, and hadn’t known to add that ‘e.’ I was so happy she told me.”

That same Alison Hwong, now an MD/PhD in San Francisco, has the warmest feelings for Ms. Dixon. “Belle began caring for me and my sister Connie, who is three years older, when I was 7 months old. So, I have really not known life without Belle. Modern families have no terms for her role in our lives — she was more than a grandmother, or even a second mother — she is a beloved part of our family.

“One special memory is Belle bringing me and my sister to First Baptist Church to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” My sister got stage fright, leaving me, with a kindergartener lisp, to sing in front of the congregation. Now, her church members ask Belle how her ‘Chinese girls’ are doing.

“I like to think that Belle taught me so much about loving and living. She had a difficult childhood in Georgia, lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and has maintained this boundless joy up to her 100th year. She has a smile and sense of gratitude that fill a room. She truly lives her Christian faith in spreading unconditional love and showing grace to her community.”

Loving Caregiver

Alison’s mother, Beatrice Hwong, adds her own thoughts about Belle’s influence. “Belle was a wonderfully reliable, loving caregiver for the children, driving them to Princeton Montessori School, attending Suzuki violin lessons, enabling me to work in software engineering research at RCA, Sarnoff, and Siemens Corporate Research.

“When they had no school, she would bring them to have lunch with me when I worked nearby. Belle has been such a special addition to our family. We have remained in touch, and the daughters visit Belle when they are in Princeton. Our son Taylor also visits with his two children, so Belle has connected with yet another generation of Hwongs.”

In 1952, Ms. Dixon and her husband adopted a 7-week-old baby boy, Larry Dean Dixon, and at the same time, she began a new job at General Motors in Ewing. Never a stranger to hard work, she continued to care for the families (often five different groups each week) in the morning before going to her 3 p.m. to midnight GM shift.

Throughout this time, she was very active at First Baptist Church. She has clearly followed the church’s inclusive motto: “The Church with Open Doors, Where Hearts Are Healed, Souls Are Saved, And God Is Praised.”

She has served in every conceivable way: as part of the church choir, a member of the deaconess board, a pastor’s aide, a member of the missionary society, treasurer, and coordinator of the Sunday School. She has held many offices, including chaplain of the Unity Choir, president of the missionary society, and president of the New Jersey Progressive Baptist Convention, Women’s Department, among many others.

Her fundraising efforts on behalf of the church are legendary, including countless bake sales. A noted baker (pies, cakes, and her famous black walnut cookies), she made sure that her bake sales invariably sold out.

Hard Work

“Mom Dixon had to re-educate us about how to hold up the church through our work when things were difficult,” says First Baptist Church Senior Pastor, the Rev. Carlton E. Branscomb. “She educated me and others to do the hard work during the difficult days of funding and declining membership. She went right to work with the bake sales.

“She has served in whatever way she could. Love is at the core, and service is an expression of that love. To me, everything about Mom Dixon is a blessing. Every time I preach the word, and I look over and see her, I know I’m all right.

“And she gives the best hugs! They have the healing touch. She’s an important force in the community. She may be a little lady, but she’s a large presence!”

Adds Cheryl Sistrunk, secretary of First Baptist, “Mom Dixon has showed us how to care for others by her example. The Witherspoon-Jackson community had an overwhelming number of mothers and fathers from a different stock — cut from a different cloth and with a different mindset. It was very normal for them to look after one another.

“One of the recurring themes is that they were such a force in the community, like Mom Dixon, because we were all that we had. We had to depend on each other. Everybody was everyone’s mother. We looked after everyone’s children. Mom Dixon always thinks of how she can help someone.”

Lance Liverman, longtime Princeton resident and former Princeton Township Committee and Princeton Council member, has known Belle Dixon since he was 4 years old.

Better World

“That is 52 years ago!” he reports. “I love Mom Dixon, and I love her insight. You can speak to her about any issue, and she will give you good advice. She has done a lot of networking in the community. If there is a need out there, she finds a way to fill it. She is loved by both black and white members of the community. Anyone in contact with her has benefited.

“If everyone could be like Mom Dixon, it could be a much better world.”

A church tribute to Ms. Dixon some years ago recognized what she has meant to the church with the following words: “Sister Dixon has been through the storm, rain, and up the rough side of the mountain, but nothing has stopped her from pressing toward the prize. She has been blessed with a winning smile and encouragement and cheer to spread her blessing to others no matter what her problems have been.”

Her life has certainly not been without problems, including the difficult early years in Georgia. Her marriage ended some years ago, and in 2018, she suffered the loss of her son due to diabetes. She has endured a number of illnesses, including breast cancer, which she has survived for 36 years. She has faced these challenges with courage, always sustained by her faith.

It has been her work with the Progressive National Baptist Convention and for the Nannie Helen Burroughs School that has been especially meaningful for Ms. Dixon.

Numerous Events

The Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) consists of mainline African American Baptists, emphasizing civil rights and social justice. It is a member of the National Council of Churches and the Baptist World Alliance. Established in 1961, it has followed a path of political activism, supporting groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and endorsing methods such as affirmative action. Dr. Martin Luther King was a member of the organization.

Ms. Dixon has been a delegate and advocate for PNBC, traveling extensively in its service, including to Pittsburgh, Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Dallas. She has also spoken at numerous events on its behalf in churches, schools, and correctional institutions.

“I liked public speaking and interacting with people,” she observes. “I often spoke about the opportunity for a better way of life, to get on a better path.”

“Opportunity” and “a better path” have informed her strong commitment to the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in Washington, D.C. Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961), an African American civil rights activist and educator, founded the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls in 1909 in Washington, with the goal of providing practical training for service in the domestic industry.

It was the first school in the nation to offer vocational training for African American females who did not otherwise have educational opportunities available to them. It provided training in domestic work and various vocations, and also gave religious instruction. It was supported by the National Baptist Convention.

“I admired Nannie Helen Burroughs so much,” says Ms. Dixon. “She did not have a real education herself, and had been denied positions, and yet she accomplished so much for others. I worked hard to raise money for that school. I wanted to help the students have the education I hadn’t been able to have.”

Social Justice

The school, which is now co-educational, was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in 1964, and now offers a wider array of academic and vocational training.

A firm believer in the importance of social justice and rights for everyone, Ms. Dixon admired Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many of those who worked so hard for civil rights, but she also points out the need for each individual to realize its importance and act accordingly.

“Laws can be passed, and rights protected, as they should be, but it’s what is in people’s hearts that really matters. That is true of white and black people. Only then will there be real change.”

To her personally, skin color does not matter. She looks beneath the surface to see the person within. It is character, not color, that counts.

“One of the most important things — 100 percent really — is forgiveness. You must forgive people. If you are angry and resentful, it will just eat at you inside and make these feelings worse. Some people say, ‘I can forgive, but I can’t forget.’ I believe you have to forget too. Let it go.

“I was happy to see Obama elected president, and I thought he was very intelligent and a good man. Of course, I remember Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor too. Things began to get better when he was president, and helped us get out of the Depression.”

Advice and Support

Having stepped back from her multiple activities at the church and PNBC, Ms. Dixon is happy to relax, although she is still available as a consultant and dispenser of advice and support.

In what is clearly an understatement, she says, ”I have been quite busy over the years, and now I am taking it easier.”

Ms. Dixon, whose appearance belies her age, is definitely a firm believer in the value of a good laugh, noting that it can help in many ways. “Whatever comes in life, it is important to be happy and laugh. Some of the younger people come up to me and say ‘Mom Dixon, where are your wrinkles?’ I say, ‘It’s because of laughing.’ When you laugh, you don’t get wrinkles!”

An enthusiastic tennis fan, she enjoys watching matches on TV, noting that “I really became interested through the Williams sisters. I admire what they have achieved and the influence they have had.”

She also loves to listen to her favorite gospel music, especially the songs of Mahalia Jackson, but also enjoys the voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Aretha Franklin. In addition, she has always been a fan of Judy Garland, and remembers with great pleasure when she was able to see her in a live performance in New York many years ago.

She likes spending time with her friends of all ages, including longtime church companion Inez Williams, and she also goes to occasional events at the Princeton Senior Resource Center.

Various Churches

It was through that organization that she came to know her friend Patricia Ostberg, who was the PSRC administrative manager from 1996 to 2002.

“Starting around 2005, Ida Belle and I served on the Princeton Church Women United Board, which brought together women representing the various churches in Princeton. She was a delight to serve with, and it is here I came to really know and appreciate her.

“She is such a positive person. Despite all she has gone through over her years, she still feels blessed. I think her contribution to the community and to me personally is being an inspiration and role model for how to live one’s life. When I need a lift in my spirit, I call her.”

Another of Belle’s longtime friends, Jody Kerssenbrock, now living in Nebraska, feels the same way. “When I phone her from my home, we talk about tennis, politics, getting older, and Christianity, and we laugh together. Belle has a charming, quiet chuckle/laugh. She perks up my day.

“Belle has been a loving and stable force in Princeton and in my life and the lives of many others. One time, on a trip to Cape Cod for the funeral of the wife of a family with whom she worked for many years, she and I sang together the gospel song, ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’ She sang another song, ‘Let the Life I Live Speak for Me.’ And what a life she has led!”

Over the years. Ms. Dixon has received countless awards and honors from her church, the community, PNBC, and organizations such as the Central Jersey Branch of the NAACP.

More Tributes

She appreciates such recognition, but as she points out, “I have never worked in the hope of getting an award. When I do something, I do it to help others or as a way to work for the church. I love to help people.”

Of course, more tributes are on the way as her birthday approaches. The church will hold a special event in her honor, and the Princeton Council will offer its own tribute.

Ms. Dixon has such a wide-ranging fan club that people will be arriving from as far away as California and North Carolina. Her longtime friend Lula Venable will be among them, and she speaks for many when she says, “I love her dearly. She means so much to anyone who knows her.”

The threads that have woven the tapestry of Belle Dixon’s life and that ultimately led her to spend most of her life in Princeton are love, commitment, and faith.

Here is a woman — strong and independent — who traveled her journey with kindness and grace, lifting up everyone she met along the way. She chose not only to make her own world better, but also the world of all those whose lives she touched.

Thank you, Belle!