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Lord Nickens, 1913-2013

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Like many African-Americans during the era of segregation, Lord Nickens experienced his share of racial intolerance and discrimination when he moved to Frederick with his family as a child.

"He was always with the people," said Warren Dorsey, an early advocate for black children in Frederick County Public Schools. "He shared our anxiety. He shared our deprivation, and he shared our denial of services."

But rather than live with the status quo, Nickens spent his life fighting for change, leaving behind him a legacy that has made his name synonymous with the civil rights movement in the county.

Nickens, 99, of Adamstown, died late Friday at Frederick Memorial Hospital of complications from pneumonia. He had been hospitalized for a week before his death.

Niece Pat Gaither said she had a premonition that led her to go to the hospital Friday, and she was in the room when her uncle died.

"It just gave me peace because I knew Uncle Dumps was suffering and I knew it was time for him to go," Gaither said.

Nickens earned the nickname Dumps from his mother, who affectionately called him dumpling, explained his wife, Thelma.

Lord Dunmore Nickens, the seventh of 13 children, was born to Reuben and Mary Nickens on Aug. 6, 1913, in White Post, Va. His family moved to Frederick in December 1919 to avoid Virginia's poll and school taxes on blacks.

Nickens was a veteran of World War II, serving in the Pacific theater and attaining the rank of sergeant after being one of the first five Frederick County residents to be drafted.

After his discharge, he married Thelma in 1945. The couple raised three children, Charles, Ronald and Gregory, while Nickens worked as a laboratory technician at Fort Detrick.

A force for change

Nickens was baffled by the overt racism and discrimination he encountered in Frederick County as a boy, something he did not experience in Virginia, said Joy Onley, a longtime friend and an expert and author on the history of African-Americans in the county.

"He used to ask his mother all the time, 'why can't I do such? What makes me different from white children?'" Onley said. "He was constantly trying to get people to look past his color."

As a young man, he was fired from his job at C. Thomas Kemp's department store on the Square Corner in Frederick after a complaint from a customer about his race.

But Nickens wasn't one to back down from ignorance and discrimination, even taking on the dangerous task of battling the Ku Klux Klan, which made him the target of death threats on more than one occasion.

When the Frederick chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1936, Nickens became a member. He would lead the chapter from 1972 until 1994. He received a lifetime achievement award from the organization in 2009.

Nickens was an advocate for fair housing laws in the 1950s and '60s, and in the '70s he began to turn his attention to supporting political and community leaders who embraced the fight for equality.

"He was not afraid of anything," Onley said. "What he said, he wasn't afraid to go out and do or say to anyone. There weren't many like him when I was coming up, because you knew your place and you didn't buck the system."

Gaither, one of three first African-American students to graduate from Frederick High School in 1960, said her uncle was the man to call when it came to getting something done about racial discrimination.

"He opened a lot of doors for us," she said. "The community is going to miss my Uncle Dumps."

Onley, who along with Gaither was among the first group of black students to attend Frederick High in 1958, said Nickens played a major role in integrating the school.

"It was people like (Nickens) and others who were involved in education who met and got the ball rolling," Onley said.

Dorsey said Nickens and his wife were the first people to welcome him into their homes when they moved to Frederick in 1946, and that they had been friends -- and brothers in the struggle for civil rights -- ever since.

"He did what he could in his own way to make things better," Dorsey said. "Lord has given a lot to this community. He will be missed."

A time to plant

While Nickens cultivated change as a civil rights leader, he also spent time cultivating plants on his farm in Adamstown, where he built a home in the 1950s.

Up until last year, Nickens rode a tractor and tended to land, where he grew tomatoes, beans and cabbage. Each morning after breakfast Nickens would go outside and check on his garden, and he would do the same thing before bed each night, his son Gregory Nickens said.

"He lived off the land," his niece Kathy Ford said. On Saturday, Ford recalled spending time with her uncle and his pigs. She said her uncle knew how to slaughter pigs and make sausage. The family also owned rabbits, chickens and ducks.

"He was a farming person," she said.

Nickens also had a passion for fishing, a pastime he shared with his youngest son, Gregory.

"He and I used to go fish down at the river," Gregory Nickens said during a telephone interview. He said his father loved to grill and fry catfish after spending time at the Monocacy River, where they made frequent visits during his childhood.

"I still enjoy my fishing," Gregory Nickens said.

But time with his dad was not always about farming and fishing, he said. He can remember when the Ku Klux Klan had threatened to kill his father. The Klan's threat put the entire neighborhood on alert, Gregory Nickens recalled.

"They said that he wouldn't see the sun rise," his son said. "Everyone was waiting for them, and they didn't show up."

That day the family's farm was well-guarded.

A time to harvest

Planting seeds in his garden reaped a harvest, and so did the seeds--Nickens planted--in the community.

"We don't have to walk around and say we are black people," said Randy Jones, of Frederick. "We can say we are--American people."

Jones, who owns Cafe 611 in Frederick, said each time he saw Nickens he used the opportunity to say thank you. He said--Nickens paved the way for African-American business owners like him long before he moved to Frederick.

"He is the Martin Luther King of Frederick County," Jones said. "Up until a day ago he was a legend, and now he is history."

Jones was in attendance when the city named a street after Nickens. The dedication took place right outside his restaurant, where Jones wants to hold a memorial or vigil for Nickens.

"Lord Nickens is irreplaceable," Jones said. "There is no replacement for Lord Nickens."

Ruth Dredden, a Frederick resident, agreed. Dredden said her husband, George Emory Dredden, who died in 2010, had a relationship with Nickens. She said the men would exchange ideas from time to time. Both were advocates for the community, Dredden said, noting Nickens' ability to make change happen.

"I think Frederick is a better place because of him and the things that he did," Dredden said.

"He touched everybody," she said.


Brian Englar and Cara R. Anthony, FrederickNewsPost.com


Collection Location:
Frederick County, Maryland

Photography - Travis Pratt

African Americans, History; Allegany County (Md.), History.

Allegany County (Md.), 1890-2008

Western Maryland Regional Library
100 South Potomac Street
Hagerstown, Maryland 21740

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