Last semester, Saahil Desai ’16 embarked on a research project to discover more about Winston M.C. Dickson, who in 1904 became the first African American student to graduate from Pomona College and, according to newspaper accounts, the first to graduate from any college in Southern California.
In “The Erasure of Winston M.C. Dickson,” Desai chronicles how Dickson came to Pomona College and how he went on to build a successful law practice in the years following his graduation. Desai writes:
When pieced together, the remaining fragments of Winston M.C. Dickson’s life suggest a man with an insatiable thirst for education and characterized by a type of resiliency forged by the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
Desai took Professor Susan McWilliams’ political theory course “Souls of Black Folk,” where students closely read and analyze the W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic book of the same name. It was this reading that inspired Desai to learn more about Pomona’s own black history. With a flexible final project, Desai decided to use his journalism skills gained from The Student Life, and turn in a history research project as a journalism piece.
“One of the things the book really focuses on is the importance of remembering black history. I came to the realization that I didn’t know the history of students of color at Pomona College.
“I couldn’t find Dickson on Pomona’s website. There was nothing on campus about him. I spent two to two and half months researching his life. I looked at anything I could to make sure his life is remembered in some capacity or another.”
One key discovery: Dickson was a successful lawyer in Texas. “He left a really important legacy in the city of Houston as one of the first black lawyers and he set up institutions for black attorneys in Houston.”
POMONA STUDENT PROFILES
Starting his research online, Desai discovered that Dickson had used his initials, W. M. C. Dickson. With this tidbit and Claremont Colleges Library access to Ancestry.com, he was underway. Desai went on to interview two historians who were instrumental in understanding Dickson’s legacy to black lawyers and the city of Houston.
“Another really big breakthrough was going through the Pomona College pictures hosted on the library website. I was astonished by how thorough they are. They have a ton of photos of Winston Dickson, and one of the photos mentioned a Los Angeles Times article of him from 1904,” he said.
Desai’s hunch that Dickson was not just Pomona’s first African American graduate but also the first in Southern California was confirmed in the Times article commending Dickson as the first African American graduate of any college in Southern California.
“I have a very big sense of pride knowing that Pomona has the first black student in Southern California. A lot of students, including myself, aren’t familiar with Pomona’s history as a Congregationalist college, which [the church] was very important in the history of integration of African Americans after Reconstruction.”
“Pomona made me think of the importance of daring minds, and Winston Dickson is as close to a daring mind as you can find,” he says. “It’s thoroughly important to remember the history of our College, and of a certain individual who’s overcome so much to get here, and after graduating has accomplished so much, and had a fulfilling life. It’s important to contextualize Pomona today with its past.”
Desai published his final piece “The Erasure of Winston M.C. Dickson” in Medium last month. After graduation, Desai plans to pursue a career in journalism covering the upcoming 2016 presidential elections.