John M. Dawson (1829–1913)

John M. Dawson served a term in the Senate of Virginia (1874–1877) and was pastor of Williamsburg's First Baptist Church for more than forty-five years. After escaping from slavery in his early years. Dawson served in the Union artillery during the American Civil War (1861–1865). He took over First Baptist Church in 1866 and soon became a leader in regional Baptist associations. In 1873 Dawson won a seat in the Senate of Virginia representing the district comprised of Charles City, Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York counties. He did not seek reelection. Dawson opposed the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition that dominated Virginia politics between 1879 and 1883. He finished a distant third when he ran for a congressional seat in 1882 and lost another bid for the state senate the following year. Dawson presided over First Baptist Church until 1912, when parishioners forced his retirement due to old age. He died in 1913 in Williamsburg. MORE...

 

Early Years

John Montgomery Dawson was born on September 16, 1829, the son of Samuel Dawson and Winney Dawson. Born into slavery in Alexandria (then part of the District of Columbia), he escaped and made his way to Cato, Cayuga County, New York, where in 1860 he worked as a barber. In 1862 Dawson enrolled in the preparatory school attached to Oberlin College, where he studied for the ministry but did not receive a degree. In September 1864 he enlisted in the 3rd New York Artillery Regiment. Following his discharge ten months later, Dawson continued his religious studies under the tutelage of a minister in Alexandria. In April 1866 he was called to First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, where he served as pastor for more than forty-five years.

Ministry and Political Career

Dawson quickly became a leader in the Norfolk Virginia Union Baptist Association. After serving as clerk and sitting on the executive board, he was elected moderator by 1871 and won reelection each year until 1882. During his tenure, the association established educational and foreign mission boards to organize the collection of funds, and Dawson sat on both until late in the 1890s. When the boards were incorporated in 1886, he was named a trustee. Dawson served a one-year term on the executive board of the Virginia Baptist State Convention beginning in May 1869 and was the corresponding secretary of the affiliated Virginia Baptist State Sabbath School Union from 1869 until 1871. At the first meeting of the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, held in 1880 in Montgomery, Alabama, he was elected tenth vice president and also named to the Foreign Mission Board.

Unlike many of his congregants, Dawson supported the Conservative ticket for statewide political offices in 1869, but he had aligned himself with the Republican Party by July 1873, when he was elected to the Republican State Committee. That September the local party split into rival factions backing Dawson and incumbent Daniel M. Norton for a seat in the Senate of Virginia. In November Dawson defeated Norton and the Conservative candidate by more than 350 votes each to represent the district comprised of Charles City, Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York Counties.

In the assembly sessions that met in 1874 and in 1874–1875 Dawson held the lowest-ranking seat on the Committee on Public Institutions. During the 1875–1876 and 1876–1877 sessions he was the lowest-ranking member of the Committee on County, City, and Town Organizations. During his term the ascendant Conservative Party worked to limit black voting and to fund the antebellum state debt in full. Dawson, who seldom spoke on the Senate floor, was in the minority that voted on February 26, 1875, and again on January 10, 1876, against amending the state constitution to require that voters pay a capitation, or per person, tax and to bar Virginians convicted of petty larceny from voting. On March 26, 1875, he voted in favor of an act providing for payment of interest on the public debt. He did not seek reelection in 1877, and Norton reclaimed the seat.

Concerned that white Republicans were abandoning their interests, African American legislators held a convention in Richmond in August 1875. Dawson opened the meeting as temporary presiding officer and served on the Committees on Address and on Finance. Delegates decried the condition of black schools, spoke against the suffrage-restricting amendments to the state constitution, adopted a resolution in favor of readjustment of the state debt, and established the Laboring Men's Mechanics' Union Association to promote the economic and political interests of blacks. In 1876 Dawson was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, and four years later he was a Republican presidential elector.

Although many African Americans in Virginia aligned with William Mahone's Readjuster Party early in the 1880s, Dawson cast his lot with the Straightout Republicans, a small group dominated by native northerners who despised Mahone and opposed radical restructuring of the state debt. The General Assembly did not redraw congressional district lines after the 1880 census, leaving Virginia with an at-large slot to fill in 1882. Dawson campaigned for the seat in the House of Representatives after receiving the nomination of the Republican State Central Committee in July. In a three-way race won by the Readjuster candidate, he finished a distant last.

The following year Dawson ran against his old rival Daniel Norton, by then a powerful Readjuster, for his Senate of Virginia seat. Even though Dawson was nominated by the incumbent's brother, Frederick S. Norton, he finished a distant third. The Straightouts appointed Dawson a delegate to the 1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago, but the credentials committee seated a rival delegation led by Mahone, who that year had directed the Readjusters to declare themselves the true Republican Party in Virginia. Dawson joined forces with Mahone in 1885 to promote the Republican ticket for statewide offices, but in 1888 he was among about 100 delegates who protested Mahone's domination of the Republican State Convention by bolting and holding their own meeting, during which Dawson was selected an alternate delegate to the national convention.

Later Years

On an unrecorded date between 1870 and 1880 Dawson married Rachel Bourbon, a widow. She had died by 1884, and on September 15, 1885, he married Eliza A. Henry. They had two sons and three daughters. Dawson began purchasing property in Williamsburg in 1872, and by 1890 he owned six town lots in addition to a plot of land in York County. He served two four-year terms as treasurer of Williamsburg and James City County beginning late in the 1880s. Reluctant to retire from the pulpit at First Baptist Church despite advanced age, he engaged in a bitter dispute with members who thought him too feeble and senile to remain in the post, and he began attending a different church after he was forced to resign in 1912. Dawson died of nephritis at his home on July 15, 1913. He was buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery, in Williamsburg.

Time Line

  • September 16, 1829 - John M. Dawson is born into slavery in Alexandria.
  • 1860 - John M. Dawson works as a barber in Cato, Cayunga County, New York, where he escaped to freedom.
  • 1862 - John M. Dawson enrolls in the preparatory school attached to Oberlin College, where he studies for the ministry but does not receive a degree.
  • September 1864 - John M. Dawson enlists in the 3rd New York Artillery Regiment and serves for ten months.
  • April 1866 - John M. Dawson is called to First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, where he will serve for more than forty-five years.
  • 1869–1871 - John M. Dawson is the corresponding secretary of the affiliated Virginia Baptist State Sabbath School Union.
  • May 1869 - John M. Dawson serves a one-year term on the executive board of the Virginia Baptist State Convention.
  • November 1869 - John M. Dawson supports the Conservative Party in state political elections.
  • 1870–1880 - Between these years, John M. Dawson and Rachel Bourbon, a widow, marry.
  • 1871–1882 - John M. Dawson is elected moderator of the Norfolk Virginia Union Baptist Association.
  • 1872 - John M. Dawson begins purchasing property in Williamsburg.
  • July 1873 - John M. Dawson is elected to the Republican State Committee.
  • November 1873 - John M. Dawson wins a seat in the Senate of Virginia, defeating Daniel M. Norton.
  • February 26, 1875 - John M. Dawson votes against limiting voting rights based on a tax or charges of petty larceny.
  • March 26, 1875 - John M. Dawson votes in favor of an act providing for payment of interest on the public debt.
  • August 1875 - John M. Dawson opens a convention of African Americans in Richmond as the temporary presiding officer.
  • January 10, 1876 - John M. Dawson again votes against limiting voting rights based on a tax or charges of petty larceny.
  • June 14–16, 1876 - John M. Dawson is a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati.
  • 1877 - John M. Dawson does not seek reelection to the Senate of Virginia, and Daniel M. Norton reclaims the seat.
  • 1880 - John M. Dawson serves as a Republican presidential elector.
  • November 1880 - John M. Dawson is elected tenth vice president of the first meeting of the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • 1882 - John M. Dawson campaigns for a seat in the House of Representatives, and finishes a distant last.
  • 1883 - John M. Dawson runs against Daniel M. Norton for a seat in the Senate of Virginia, and finishes a distant third.
  • 1884 - By this year, Rachel Bourbon Dawson, the wife of John M. Dawson, dies.
  • 1885 - John M. Dawson joins forces with William Mahone to support the Republican ticket for statewide offices.
  • September 15, 1885 - John M. Dawson and Eliza A. Henry marry. They will have two sons and three daughters.
  • 1886 - John M. Dawson is named a trustee of the incorporated educational and foreign mission boards of the Norfolk Virginia Union Baptist Association.
  • Late 1880s - John M. Dawson serves two four-year terms as treasurer of Williamsburg and James City County.
  • 1890 - By this year, John M. Dawson owns six town lots in Williamsburg and an additional plot of land in York County.
  • 1912 - The congregation of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg forces John M. Dawson to resign as pastor due to old age.
  • July 15, 1913 - John M. Dawson dies of nephritis at his home in Williamsburg. He is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

References

Further Reading
Bogger, Tommy L. "Since 1776: The History of First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia." Williamsburg, Virginia: First Baptist Church, 2006.
Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
Maccubbin, Robert P., ed. Williamsburg, Virginia: A City Before the State, 1699–1999. Williamsburg, Virginia: City of Williamsburg, 2000.
Moore, James Tice. Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870–1883. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Loux, J. R., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John M. Dawson (1829–1913). (2016, November 10). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Dawson_John_M_1829-1913.

  • MLA Citation:

    Loux, Jennifer R. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John M. Dawson (1829–1913)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 10 Nov. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: June 17, 2015 | Last modified: November 10, 2016