Author, churchwoman, community activist. Edith Dabbs was born in Dalzell (Sumter County) on November 10, 1906, the daughter of Vermelle Wells and John Hampton Mitchell. Growing up in Greenville, she attended Six Mile Academy and Greenville Women’s College (later Furman University). She graduated from Coker College in 1927 with a B.A. in English and Latin, and she then taught high school English and French for five years. In 1935 she married her former Coker English professor, the author James McBride Dabbs, whose first wife had died two years before, leaving him with two daughters. Edith and James had three children of their own, and in 1937 they moved back to his family home, Rip Raps Plantation, in Mayesville (Sumter County), where he farmed and wrote and she became engaged in a variety of community activities.
Through the 1940s and 1950s Edith Dabbs was active in the work of the United Church Women (an ecumenical Christian organization that changed its name in 1966 to Church Women United), serving two terms as South Carolina state president from 1951 to 1955, during which time the state council grew from half a dozen white women to ten city councils and an integrated annual gathering of two hundred church people. She would write later that “this was the first statewide integrated organization” in South Carolina except for the South Carolina Council on Human Relations (of which she was a life member of the board of directors). She also served for many years on the United Church Women’s national Public Relations Committee. Working in affiliation with the Associated Press, United Press International, and Religious News Service, she initiated weekly religious news-interview programs in several cities and wrote hundreds of scripts for radio and television spots.
In the 1960s Edith Dabbs developed an interest in the historic Penn School on St. Helena Island, precursor to the community action agency Penn Community Services, which James Dabbs headed as chairman of the board of trustees. While she was collecting islander stories in the preparation of her 1970 book Walking Tall, she discovered a cache of old photographs and negatives that led her to publish Face of an Island (1970). After James Dabbs’s death in 1970, Edith’s growing interest in the island and its people led to her receiving research grants from the Field Foundation (1972) and the Ford Foundation (1974–1975) and eventually to her publication of Sea Island Diary: A History of St. Helena Island (1983).
In 1977 Dabbs received an honorary doctor of humanities degree from Francis Marion College, and in 1978 she received the Valiant Woman Award from Church Women United. She was also named a life member of the board of directors of the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based human rights organization of which James McBride Dabbs had served as president in the 1960s. Edith Dabbs died at Rip Raps Plantation on February 28, 1991, and was buried at Salem Black River Presbyterian Church in Mayesville.
Dabbs, Edith M. Interview by Elizabeth Jacoway. Tape recording, October 4, 1975. Southern Oral History Program, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
———. Sea Island Diary: A History of St. Helena Island. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1983.