Thomas Dixon Jr., whose novel The Clansman was the basis for the film Birth of a Nation, was born on January 11, 1864, near Shelby to Thomas Dixon and the former Amanda Elvira McAfee. The elder Dixon was a Baptist minister who also ran a store in Shelby. Educated by his parents and at Shelby Academy, Dixon also worked in his father’s store. In 1879 he entered Wake Forest College, where he would achieve highest honors. Dixon won a scholarship to graduate school at the newly established Johns Hopkins University, where he enrolled in 1883. In Baltimore Dixon fell in love with theater and, within a few months, moved to New York to pursue an acting career. His disappointing experience there led him home to Shelby where he began to study law.
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Dixon was elected to the General Assembly in 1884 and passed the bar after serving in his first legislative session. It was not long before he tired of law practice and became a Baptist minister. In 1895 he left the ministry to become a nondenominational speaker. Having developed his oratory skills since college, Dixon became a famed lecturer during the 1890s, earning as much as one thousand dollars per engagement. While maintaining his speaking career he became a gentleman farmer in Virginia.
In 1901 Dixon wrote his first novel The Leopard’s Spots, calling for the exclusion of blacks from American society and for a reunion between North and South. He would write two more novels with similar messages, and in 1905 adapted one of them into a play entitled The Clansman. D. W. Griffith would make the play into the landmark motion picture, Birth of a Nation, a project that took from 1913 to 1915.
Thomas Dixon was married to Harriet Bussey from 1886 until her death in 1937. They had three children. In 1939 Dixon, in failing health, married Madelyn Donovan, a leading lady from one of his films. He died in Raleigh on April 3, 1946. His remains are buried in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, near the grave of journalist W. J. Cash.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 79-80—sketch by Joel Williamson
Richard Walser, Literary North Carolina (1970)
Raymond A. Cook, Fire from the Flint: The Amazing Careers of Thomas Dixon (1968)
Thomas Dixon, Jr., 1899
A J. Conant, artist
Portrait Collection, Wake Forest University