Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mahala Ashley Dickerson

Rosa Parks and Mahala
During ten years of traveling around North America, my wife, Gaila, and I had the opportunity to meet some of the nicest people on the planet. One that we stayed in touch with was Mahala Ashley Dickerson. Gaila met her at the college swimming pool the summer we worked in Anchorage, Alaska. She was an Alaskan Pioneer. She had come to Alaska with her young triplet sons in 1958. She was Alaska’s first African-American lawyer and practiced until she was 91. She told us the story of land grant officials telling her there was no land available where she wanted to homestead. She said a man from Tennessee spoke up and said, "Why don’t you show her the land you just showed me up in Wasilla?" She wondered if that was a blessing or a curse while she was trying to raise her boys and meet the criteria of the homestead act. To claim your land you had to build a cabin and be growing your own food on the land within two years. She not only did that but also started her law practice in 1959 in Anchorage and became known as an advocate for the poor and took on many cases involving discrimination.
Every December for 25 years we would recieve an invitation to Mahala’s Office Christmas Party. In December of 2006 it did not arrive. On Febuary 27th, 2007 Governor Sarah Palin ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff, in honor of Mahala Ashley Dickerson. She died on her land in Wasilla at the age of 94. Alaska has lost a true pioneer," said Governor Palin.
I loved to listen to Mahala’s stories. She was a firebrand when action was called for, yet soft spoken, sweet and very smart. In the explosive years leading up to the Civil Rights Era, Mahala seemed to be everywhere history was being made. She was raised in the South before the era of civil rights. She grew up in Alabama on a plantation owned by her father. She attended a private school, Miss White’s School, where she began a lifelong friendship with Rosa Parks, who would become a hero of the civil rights movement.
Mahala was the first African American female to be admitted to the Alabama State Bar, the second African American female admitted in Indiana and the first African American admitted in Alaska. She spent the war years at the Tuskekee Air Base.
Dickerson often took clients who didn’t have the means to pay, said Leroy Barker, the historian for the Alaska State Bar Association, who practiced law with Dickerson in the 1960s.
"I don’t think anybody thought of her as a black woman lawyer; she was just a lawyer," he said. "I think she worked very hard to get where she was, and she was a strong personality."
Joshua Wright, an Anchorage dentist, was a friend of Dickerson from the time she moved to Alaska. He remembered her as "a fighter."
"When she was younger, oh, God, when she got on a roll, you better clear out the room," he said, laughing. One lawyer was qouted as saying, "Rex, you see those mountains out there? Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson."
In 1995, she was awarded the Margaret Brent Award from the American Bar Association, an honor also given to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Her son Chris said their mother encouraged them to follow whatever dream they might have."She said, ‘Follow it. Be a poet if you want to be a poet.’ That was her philosophy," Chris said.
Chris, however, did not become a poet. He became the first African American Mr. America in 1970 and Mr. Olympia in 1982, at the age of 43, he became the oldest winner of the sport’s most prestigious title.
I can remember getting a bottle of ketchup out of Mahala’s pantry at the homestead one day and spying this large bottle of vitamins with a picture of this black body builder on the label. The guy had a V-shaped body that rippled with muscle. I said, "Mahala, who’s this guy?" She said, "Oh, that’s my son, he’s Mr. America."
Mahala wanted us to spend the winter at her cabin on the homestead property. If I had to do it all over again I would have agreed. At the time I was thinking it would be dark all winter and I would go stir crazy with not much to do. I convinced Gaila we should head out of Alaska and spend the winter in Arizona, which is what we did. Mahala’s property was beautiful, we left on a gorgeous September, Indian summer day. The two-track roads leading into her property were signed "Hollywood and Vine."
The world is full of extraordinary people. Mahala lived life to the fullest and inspired many others to do the same. They say adversity builds character. In Mahala’s case that could not be more true.
Mahala’s life story can be found between the pages of her autobiography "Delayed Justice for Sale".

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