William Peter Dickerson (20 April 1870–8 August 1943), physician and banker, was born in Keswick, Albemarle County, and was the son of Frank Dickerson and Jane Thomas Dickerson, who in 1877 married Charles Nicholas, a farmer. Dickerson grew up in his stepfather's home and attended local schools. He graduated from Howard University's preparatory department in 1895 and received an M.D. from Howard in 1899. In the latter year he married a woman named Emma Theresa, whose maiden name is unrecorded. They did not have children.
Dickerson had moved to Newport News by June 1900 and established a medical practice. He also became involved in business affairs and in November 1902 joined others in chartering the Citizens Building and Loan Association. He served as vice president until about 1910, when he became president, not long before Citizens closed. In 1910 Dickerson became a director of Crown Savings Bank, one of two banks for African Americans in Newport News. By 1913 he had been appointed vice president and in 1916 was named president. During the next twenty-seven years Dickerson oversaw the bank's expansion, including its acquisition of the Sons and Daughters of Peace Penny, Nickel, and Dime Savings Bank in 1925. During the Great Depression the president of the United States declared a mandatory closing of all the country's banks on 5 March 1933. Crown reopened two weeks later without any restrictions on its operations. Deposits at Crown Savings Bank increased from $203,360 in 1929 to $606,202 in 1940 and to $1.6 million three years later.
Dickerson voiced concern about unsanitary conditions in African American neighborhoods of Newport News, and by 1912 he had helped establish a civic league to promote public health. In 1908 he joined Walter Tecumseh Foreman, Welcome Turner Jones, and Robert Lee Whittaker in opening a hospital in rented rooms. Renamed Whittaker Memorial Hospital after their partner died in December 1912, the institution provided free care for the indigent at a time when the nearest hospital for black patients was located in Phoebus. As treasurer of the Whittaker Memorial Hospital Association, chartered in June 1914 to raise funds and manage the hospital, Dickerson helped secure money and property for a new building, which opened in March 1917. During World War I, the government used the hospital as a facility for sick soldiers from nearby embarkation camps, and Dickerson served as a physician and surgeon for African American troops at Camp Stuart. A training school for nurses operated at the hospital from 1915 until 1932.
Dickerson became a charter member of the Tidewater Medical Society about 1902 and soon began attending meetings of the National Medical Association, the counterpart of the American Medical Association, which did not admit African American physicians as members. He served as state vice president of the NMA in 1912 and began a two-year term on its executive board in 1914. Elected a member of the NMA's House of Delegates in 1919, Dickerson served as its vice president in 1938. He often presented papers on such topics as influenza and tuberculosis during the thirty years he attended the association's annual meetings. In 1938 Dickerson was one of the NMA's representatives at a meeting with federal officials to discuss a government plan for health care in the United States. In June 1937 members of the Old Dominion Medical Society elected him president for a one-year term.
A devout Catholic, Dickerson worked to strengthen the church's role in the African American community. In speeches before the Catholic Educational Association in 1919 and 1922 he advocated increasing the availability of Catholic education, especially high schools, for black children. During the 1920s Dickerson joined the Federated Colored Catholics of the United States, an organization established to help combat racial prejudice in the church, and by 1930 he had become a member of its executive committee. Emphasizing the interracial nature of its work, the group changed its name in 1932 to the National Catholic Federation for the Promotion of Better Race Relations. Not convinced that well-intentioned white leaders could best speak to the needs of African Americans, Dickerson joined some of the original members in creating a separate organization known as the Federation of Colored Catholics. He was elected a vice president at its first meeting in August 1933 and remained in office through 1939, after which the federation ceased much of its activity.
Early in the 1940s Dickerson raised money to construct a new hospital building for Whittaker Memorial and secured more than $200,000 in federal funds for the fifty-three-bed facility. Three days after meeting with government officials in Washington, D.C., William Peter Dickerson fell ill and died at his Newport News home on 8 August 1943. He was buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C, in Prince George's County, Maryland. The dedication ceremonies for Whittaker's new building three months later included a moment of silence for Dickerson. In 1985 Whittaker Memorial Hospital moved to a new location and was renamed Newport News General Hospital. It closed in 1997.
Birth date and parents' names confirmed by Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics; variant birth date of Apr. 1879 and variant birthplace of Charlottesville in World War II Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards (1942), RG 147, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; biography in Daniel Smith Lamb, comp., Howard University Medical Department, Washington, D.C.: A Historical, Biographical and Statistical Souvenir (1900), 162–163; publications include Dickerson, "Intestinal Obstruction in Children," Journal of the National Medical Association 7 (1915): 117–120, "Historical Notes on Influenza," ibid. 11 (1919): 39–40, "A Plea for Social Justice," Catholic Educational Association Bulletin 16 (Nov. 1919): 425–430, and "Urgent Need of More High Schools for Colored Catholic Children," ibid. 19 (Nov. 1922): 346–350; Norfolk Journal and Guide, 12 June 1937, 25 June 1938, 20 Nov. 1943; Alexander Crosby Brown, ed., Newport News' 325 Years: A Record of Progress of a Virginia Community (1946), 253–254; obituaries and editorial tributes in Newport News Daily Press, 9, 10 Aug. 1943, and Norfolk Journal and Guide (Newport News Star ed.), 14 Aug. 1943 (with portrait); obituary and memorial in Catholic Virginian 18 (Sept. 1943): 7, 29.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Marianne E. Julienne.
How to cite this page:
>Marianne E. Julienne,"William Peter Dickerson (1870–1943)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Dickerson_William_Peter, accessed [today's date]).
Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.