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Former slave’s death in 1889 attracted rare news coverage

By W. T. Block

First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday September 25, 1999.

NEDERLAND--In February 1889, Beaumont Enterprise published an obituary about a Black centenarian, nicknamed “Old Sock, in an age when Black obituaries were usually printed only in Negro newspapers.

“Old Sock” was already gray-headed when he moved to Beaumont from a Louisiana sugar plantation about 1859. His given name was Shicole, and following his emancipation in 1865, when he was already past 70 years of age; he adopted the surname of Dickenson from his former owner.

Because of advancing age, “Old Sock” was no longer able to perform hard work, such as farming, logging, or sawmill labor. Hence he eked out a threadbare existence, running trotlines and fishing in the river.

“Old Sock” became well known in Beaumont during the 1880’s. Almost every morning, he could be seen visiting Long’s Commissary, Wiess’ Grocery, or another store, as he sought to sell or trade his daily catch of catfish, perch, and bass. He always carried an old sock, from whence his nickname, tied to his belt, in which he kept his few coins and other valuables.

“Old Sock” lived in a one-room shanty across Neches River from Collier’s Ferry. Each morning he would run his trot lines before crossing the river to sell his catch, and the remainder of the day, he could be seen near the ferry, either pole-fishing from the bank or in his old weather-beaten skiff.

Wherever he was seen, “Old Sock” was always singing in a mournful tone and in a language that no one understood, but which was said to be his native African tongue. One lady reported that his language sounded like that of her mother, who years earlier often sang to her in the Ashanti language from the Gold Coast of Africa (now Ghana).

It was generally thought that “Old Sock” was born about 1790, although he did not know himself the exact year of his birth. He remembered only that he was married with a family when he was captured during tribal warfare and was sold into slavery. He was aboard a Spanish slave ship near Cuba, captured by pirates, before he arrived at Galveston Island in 1817, when there was only one house on the entire island. Galveston Daily News of Feb. 12, 1889 observed that:

“...Shicole Dickenson, generally known in Beaumont as “Old Sock,” was drowned last week south of Collier’s Ferry. His boat was leaking and sinking, and he caught a limb, clinging to it until he was exhausted and he drowned. He died singing in his native African language, of which country, report says, he was the son of a chief...”

“...He landed in Galveston so long ago that he does not remember the exact year, but he says there was one house on the island at that time. It is believed he was nearly 100 years old. Some persons saw him drown, but could not get to his relief...”

Other sources reveal that there was only one house on Galveston Island in June 1817; only two months after Lafitte’s pirates arrived there.

In early February of 1889, the Neches River was at flood stage, and hundreds of logs were floating in the river near Beaumont. Hence it seems doubtful if “Old Sock’s” body was ever recovered.

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