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Martha Dixon (1946–)

Martha Smith Dixon is an internationally recognized clothing designer and entrepreneur. Her designs of couture gowns worn by Hillary Clinton during Clinton’s husband’s 1987 gubernatorial inauguration and 1993 presidential inauguration helped launch her career in fashion design and sales. Dixon is a member of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Martha Smith was born in Clark County on February 2, 1946, the seventeenth of twenty children of James G. Smith and Beatrice Cook Smith, impoverished cotton pickers and sharecroppers in the South Central community in Clark County. She attended public school in Gurdon (Clark County) when work allowed and graduated from Peake High School in Arkadelphia (Clark County) in 1965. The first in her family to attend college, she spent two years at Henderson State University before dropping out to work at Levi Strauss and Co. In 1967, she married Huie Dixon; the couple adopted a son, Chris, in 1973, and she became a stay-at-home mother. After her son reached middle school, Dixon returned to her early passion of clothes-making and completed a college correspondence program in fashion offered by the Commercial Technical Institute in Little Falls, New Jersey.

Dixon started her first business, Martha’s Designs, to cater to a diverse clientele. She walked door-to-door to boutiques in the Heights neighborhood in Little Rock (Pulaski County) before receiving her first break when the Casey’s Cachet boutique placed an order for twelve silk dresses. Within two weeks, one of Dixon’s dresses had been selected for Hillary Rodham Clinton, then Arkansas’s first lady, to wear for the Governor’s Inaugural Ball in 1987 following the reelection of her husband, Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas. The jade-green jersey gown was later put on display at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock.

The dress couture business picked up after the high-profile order, allowing Dixon to place her designs in boutiques in surrounding states. In a local show of support, Arkadelphia business leaders helped pay for the initial material costs for a second gown designed for and worn by Hillary Clinton, this time at Bill Clinton’s 1993 Presidential Gala Inaugural Ball. The red gown made of silk, satin, and lace was later put on display at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

With a $50,000 loan from the Arkansas Industry Development Council, Dixon created her second business, Dixon Manufacturing, in 1989. A children’s clothing line called Dixon Kids was created in 1997 to supply school uniforms. Dixon’s commercial clients have included Tyson Foods, CARTI, and Walmart. After a devastating fire in 2006 at the Dixon Manufacturing Clinton Street facility in Arkadelphia, Dixon sold the school uniform part of the company, gave the hospital uniform portion to an employee, and retained the food-services uniform portion to run from home.

Dixon became involved in the Democratic Party in Arkansas, serving in leadership roles at the county and state level, including as Arkansas Democratic National Committeewoman for Arkansas in 2000 and co-chair of the 2008 presidential campaign for Hillary Clinton in Arkansas.

Dixon was recognized as one of the “Top 100 Women of Arkansas” by Arkansas Business magazine and was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2005. She used her influence as a prominent business owner to gain representation for African Americans in the Arkadelphia and Clark County community. In 2011, Dixon published her autobiography, Triumph Beyond Measure.

Over the years, she has served on numerous boards and committees, including the board of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. She is a member of the Arkadelphia Rotary Club. Her accomplishments are prominently featured in a community mural in downtown Arkadelphia, and she has been featured in Southern Living and Emerge magazines.

Dixon resides in Clark County with her husband. They live on land that Dixon’s family first worked as sharecroppers.

For additional information:
Dixon, Martha. Triumph Beyond Measure: An Autobiography. N.p.: AuthorHouse, 2011.

Watson, Spencer. “Front & Center: Martha Dixon.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Tri-Lakes Edition, May 18, 2008, pp. 140–141. Online at http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2008/may/18/frontampcenter-martha-dixon-20080518/?print (accessed October 21, 2016).

Deborah Sesser
Arkadelphia, Arkansas

Last Updated 6/12/2017

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