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Charles E. Dyson Jr. – Remembering and honoring the Fredericksburg Black Community

At a time when options for Black citizens in the nation were limited, it seemed that Charles E. Dyson Jr. had limitless potential. He led a life, only 31-years-long, that paralleled the rise of the Civil Rights movement and he pioneered his own path right here in Fredericksburg.

From the early 1950’s to the late 1960’s, Dyson managed the area’s first Black all-star baseball team, became the area’s first Black radio DJ, owned his own businesses, was Fredericksburg’s first Black police officer and ended his glorious decade with a sad distinction, as the first area soldier to perish in the Vietnam War. All the while, Black leaders were working to secure equal protection under the law by ending legally established racial discrimination, getting equal access to public facilities, and pushing through voting rights, education reform and access to fair housing.

In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, just a year after Brown v Board of Education was ruled, making the segregation of public schools unconstitutional.

It was around this time that Dyson organized and managed the first Fredericksburg Area High School All Stars team of Black baseball players. Charles E. Dyson Jr. was a 1951 graduate of John J. Wright High School in Spotsylvania, the county school for Black students, and went on to attend historically Black college St. Paul’s in Lawrenceville, Va. 

An article from the Free Lance-Star memorializing Dyson’s life noted that “the Black team was Charles Dyson’s answer to segregation still in practice at the time.” There were multiple teams for outstanding white players “but the best Black high school ballplayers had no outlet for furthering their skills.” Dyson worked tirelessly to keep the team, which played downtown at Maury Stadium, going. They needed to travel to play other Black community teams, so he enlisted local businesses as team sponsors. To get there, he garnered the donation of a bus.  

In 1956 here in Virginia, voters and representatives decide to fund private schools with state money to maintain segregation. A New York Times report found in 1957 that even though it had been mandated three years before, there has been minimal progress toward integration in four southern states, and no progress at all in seven.

On March 1, 1957, Charles E. Dyson Jr. was sworn in as the Fredericksburg Police Department’s first Black officer. He was already an Army veteran, having served in counterintelligence roles and as a military police officer. But Dyson’s status as the sole Black officer on the local force brought challenges with the community. It was reported that he was not to arrest white people—he could only reprimand Black residents—and an interview with his brother said that led to resentment toward him. According to a 1957 newspaper article announcing his post, he was assigned to the overnight shift patrolling the 500 block of Princess Anne Street.

Much of the Black business community centered in that 500 block of Princess Anne Street near the train station. Dyson himself owned Sonny’s Record Shop and the eatery next door called The Soda Fountain. It was at this time that he became the city’s first Black DJ at WFVA Radio. He hosted two shows, a Saturday night rhythm and blues show, and a Sunday morning gospel show. He used this role to bring Black performers to a venue in Fredericksburg’s Darbytown neighborhood.

His efforts didn’t stop there. DJ, baseball manager and officer were not enough. Dyson was an expert typist, as well, and according to articles on his life, he became the first Black teacher at Boyd’s School of Business in Washington. In September 1959, his photo was published on the cover of Ebony magazine, his family said. The cover showed him instructing adult students in the use of large manually operated adding machines

The 1960’s ushered in rapid change and advancement. In 1960, lunch counter sit-ins started in Greensboro, NC. The same year, Ruby Bridges became the first Black student to attend a white elementary school. And in 1961, the first group of Freedom Riders embarked on their mission to integrate interstate buses.

Into the 1960s, Charles Dyson served with the Army Reserve and in 1962 his path crossed with national Civil Rights events. He was dispatched with troops during violent protests sparked by the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. Meredith had previously been barred entry, but the Supreme Court ordered his admission, and a deadly white riot ensued.

1963 was the year of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. It was the year he was arrested and penned his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It was the year Medgar Evans was assassinated. In the following year, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

It was this time that Charles E. Dyson Jr. was called to active duty in the Army in the Dominican Republic, and in 1965, he was called to Vietnam.

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, and Civil Rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated

Soon after he arrived in Vietnam, Dyson penned a heartfelt letter to The Free Lance–Star. The newspaper published it on Dec. 23, 1965. He wrote:

To the editor: I am a native of Spotsylvania County (RFD 1, Box 26), where my mother Mrs. Rosa Dyson now lives.
I am here in An Khe, which is a valley adjacent to Plei Mei.
Christmas won’t be much for us here, many of us might not even live to see tomorrow, much less Christmas.
They are playing for keeps here, the bullets are real, and the price is life.
So I am wondering if it would be asking too much if I ask you to use one paragraph in your paper Christmas Eve and say a special prayer for all of us here. I also wonder if you could send me a copy of The Free Lance–Star each day and let me know how much it is.

He was anxious for news from back home and a lifeline to his community. Dyson included his mailing address to publish, “If any of the folks back home would like to write.”

In 1966, violence against Black leaders continued. Meredith was shot, but survived, while conducting a solitary march. In Hattiesburg Miss., NAACP local chapter leader Vernon Dahmer was killed in a bombing. The slogan Black Power was used for the first time and the Black Panther party was founded.

On Feb. 26, 1966, the newspaper reported that Sgt. Charles E. Dyson Jr. had been killed in action in Vietnam. He was the first area resident to die in fighting there. The news report said Dyson died as a result of “multiple gunshot wounds sustained when struck by enemy automatic weapons fire while on a combat operation.” He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and his name was placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

An article in the Philadelphia Daily News published in 1987 about the service members lost in Vietnam noted:

The native of Virginia was a clerk-typist for the Philadelphia Water Department when he first enlisted in the Army in 1955. After his discharge in 1957, he became the first Black police officer in Fredericksburg, Va. Dyson re-enlisted in 1961, and was later sent to Vietnam, where he was assigned to Company A of the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The 31-year-old sergeant, a team leader, died on February 23, 1966. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.

He did not live to see the 1967 ruling of Loving v Virginia which legalized interracial marriage and was filed by a couple close to home, or how Civil Rights continued to roil white hate. He might have mourned in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He would be 86 today and his struggle for equality continues—but so does his legacy as one of many firsts in Fredericksburg.