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  • Writer's pictureTyeal Howell

A Legacy of Music and Compassion: The Story of Capitola 'Cappie' Dickerson


1968 photograph from a New Jersey newspaper showing Capitola teaching children music
1968 photograph from a New Jersey newspaper showing Capitola teaching children music

Capitola Dickerson was known as the “songbird” of her senior class of Urbana High School in 1930. Even at a young age, when Capitola sang negro spirituals or gave orations, people listened. “Cappie” as she was known was born in Urbana on September 21, 1913. The granddaughter of slaves, Cappie’s gift of music ran throughout the Dickerson family and would reach the ears and minds of thousands upon thousands of people as audience members and pupils. The Dickerson family held an esteemed place in local music starting with Cappie’s great uncle, Benjamin Dickerson. Benjamin was born a slave in Maryland and escaped with his father to the north. The family eventually came to Urbana in the latter part of the 19th century where Benjamin would be tapped to serve as the long-time choirmaster of St. Paul A.M.E Church on East Market Street. He was known for his skillful vocals and piano playing influencing his niece, Capitola, with the same musical talents.


an ad from 1958 for Capitola's Rhythm Classes for children
an ad from 1958 for Capitola's Rhythm Classes for children

Following her high school graduation, Capitola headed to the East Coast to study and teach music. She would become a graduate of the famed Julliard School of Music and continued her studies at Columbia University in New York City. Cappie would eventually find her way to Summit, New Jersey not far from the Big Apple. She would become one of the first women of color to be employed by Bell Laboratories, but music would be her main vocation and passion. By the 1940s her music classes were reaching hundreds of students, both white and black, from New York and New Jersey. Performing and educating about negro spirituals was a particular focus for Cappie, and a topic she would have gained firsthand knowledge about from her great uncle who was once enslaved. He would eventually come to live with Capitola in the final years of life, passing away at the age of 97.

2010 photo showing Capitola teaching piano
2010 photo showing Capitola teaching piano

Capitola taught piano to thousands of people. Famed musicians and conductors pointed to her as their source for inspiration and for honing their musical talents. “Cappie” also gave music lessons to hearing and speech impaired students for over 30 years, and taught music and rhythm classes to preschoolers for decades. Capitola’s passion extended beyond her musical talents to that of supporting youth, activism for Civil Rights and affordable housing. She was part of the movement that led to the first affordable housing to be constructed in Summit. She was awarded the “Keeper of the Dream” Award and presented the key to the city by the mayor in 2011 for her lifetime of service to the greater Summit community. Frank Bolden and his family were long-time music pupils of Capitola and made the following observation as to Miss Dickerson’s character. “She could read people," Bolden said. "She could provide whatever you needed to bring your smile back. I knew her for some 40 years and I never heard her say a bad thing about anybody. She was just so positive, and it rubbed off on everyone."


Capitola “Cappie” Dickerson passed away at the age of 99 in 2012 with hundreds of people turning out to pay their respects to the woman who had influenced their lives and community for over 65 years. She was cremated and her ashes interred in Summit, New Jersey. Following her passing, a journal was found among Cappie’s possessions she began to keep at the age of 97. Inside its pages, she shared these thoughts, "Did I do the right thing today? Did I say the right thing when people needed it? Just because I'm 97 doesn't make me wiser. What it makes me know is that I have to work harder to know what people need from me. That's my prayer." Wise words from a timeless teacher who loved all and gave of herself without hesitation to those in need.


- by John By

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