Very few African Americans have witnessed as much of their history as 105-year-old Army veteran Alyce Dixon.
She is 105 and has seen a century of social and cultural changes since Theodore Roosevelt was president.
Who better to reflect, during African American History Month, on the transitions in her life than a Veteran who has served in one World War and lived through all the other major military conflicts of the 20th century?
Alyce experienced racism and sexism but was born with a resilient strength that told her all along, before there was a song, that she would overcome.
She has seen 19 American Presidents including Barack Obama, the first African American president. Her opinion? “He’s brilliant!”
“I felt like I was doing something worthwhile for my country.”
One of her first jobs was as a civilian at the Pentagon. “The building was still being built when I was there.” She worked in a secretarial pool where women waited each day for an assignment.
“They were calling for the white girls every day,” she recalls.
“I went in and talked to the man in charge. I said, ‘I’ve been sitting here now a whole week and you haven’t called me. What’s wrong?’ The man told me he was trying to find me a spot. So, I said, ‘What are you trying to find me, a ‘black’ spot?’
“I didn’t like that. God made us all. We all eat and sleep and bleed alike. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Alyce enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1943. She was assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only unit of African American women in the WAC to serve overseas during the war. There were about 900 enlisted women and officers in the battalion. It was commanded by Army Maj. Charity Adams Earley who was the highest-ranking African American woman in the military after the war.
“I remember Charity Adams asking a general in Washington why there were no black women serving overseas. Major Adams told him she had a lot of intelligent ‘Negro’ women that should go overseas. And we did.”
Her unit worked in a warehouse in France where she and others were assigned to sorting lost and delayed packages of mail. She is sure she remembers “900 billion packages” of mail.
Although their work was important to the war effort, the women of the 6888th were still segregated from the other American troops. They slept in separate barracks and ate in separate dining halls. But that did not stop Alyce from doing her job. “I felt like I was doing something worthwhile for my country,” she adds.
Alyce lists Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama as two of the men she admires the most.
When she reflects on the history of African Americans, Alyce says she regrets the great number of very intelligent men and women who were never given a chance to share their gifts because of their race. She can recite, swiftly, a list of notable African American scientists, authors, inventors and artists. And tell you what they did and why it was so important.
That unique spelling of her name? Her mother named her Alice but when she was 16, she saw an actress named Alyce Mills in a movie and changed the spelling of her name. “I thought it was pretty, so I changed it.” This was 1923.
Dixon hoped for a college education and enrolled at Washington DC’s Howard University. But when she heard her father talking about how hard it was to raise six children on his salary — $25 a week, she quit Howard to get a job and attended night school.
Today, Alyce resides in the Community Living Center at theWashington DC VA Medical Center where she is well known for her sense of humor. “I like to tell jokes. You have to laugh a bit and live it up.”
That helps her laugh off the surprise some people express when they first see her. “They think I’m a Jewish mother from New York.” Alyce has a condition called vitiligo, which causes skin depigmentation. Add that to the fact that she lived in New York City for 20 years and is fond of Yiddish expressions, and the confusion is understandable.
Before losing a leg to an infection several years ago, Alyce worked as a volunteer at several area hospitals. She is the longest-residing resident at the VA hospital and has served as president of the facility’s residence council.
She is quick, lucid, a keen reader and loves to talk current events with all visitors. She is always amused when young people visit and are surprised that she keeps up with them.
Alyce is used to the question about how one lives so long. She credits her longevity to “paying it forward. Being kind to others and helping those in need leads to a long life,” she says.