Bearing Witness

 

W.T. Mason watches as, after nearly 60 years, "the struggle continues"

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Fred Field
 

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Photo by Fred Field
For the three students, it was meant to be an end-of-semester treat"a nice dinner at Waterville's Elmwood Hotel, a fancier alternative to the usual Colby hangouts.

"A little break, you know?" said Virginia attorney W. T. Mason '47, recalling that December evening in the hotel's Pine Tree Tavern. "We were talking. Didn't even notice that nobody was paying any attention to us. We'd been there twenty minutes and no waitress had come up."

The waitress continued to ignore them, and Mason, a senior from outside New York City"and an African American"figured out why. "It was perfectly apparent to me what was going on."

It soon became more than apparent as the hotel manager told the students that, in the interests of the white patrons, Mason could not be waited on in public. "We were told they had new management . . . and they weren't serving black people," recalled Donald Klein '47, one of two friends who accompanied Mason to the hotel that night.

The incensed students left the hotel"since razed but then located just down the street from the old campus"and returned to Colby to spread the word. A meeting was called in the chapel and throngs of students turned out. "The place was packed," Klein said. "Bill was very popular."

#aocn#left#40%#According to Klein, who went on to become a professor of psychiatry at Columbia, the plan was for the students to march to the hotel in protest. But then President J. Seelye Bixler, pronouncing the discrimination against Mason a terrible thing, also quoted the Bible: "Why beholdest the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest
not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

Bixler, Klein said, was referring to discrimination by fraternities and sororities. "I don't know if that was his intent," he said, recalling the scene, "but it sure sabotaged everything we were trying."

Bixler did advise the organizers to return to the hotel and demand an explanation, Mason said. A tepid apology from the hotel manager followed, and it was printed in the Echo along with editorials and letters from around the state decrying racial discrimination.

Mason, who went on to a distinguished law career in Norfolk, Va., said he doesn't think of the Waterville incident often. "It was just a little blip," he said, in an interview in the library at his law office. "There were just so many other things that were a whole lot more important than that."

And Mason has lived through them.

A conversation with the venerable lawyer"still practicing law at 78" is like a survey course in the Civil Rights movement. At Howard University Law School, Mason was taught by trial lawyer James Nabrit Jr., an African American who successfully challenged the whites-only primary elections common in the South and led a court fight that knocked out the discriminatory poll tax in 13 states.

Mason witnessed the "Massive Resistance" movement in Virginia, a series of unprecedented (and ultimately illegal) legislative maneuvers taken as the state tried to sidestep the desegregation of schools ordered by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (another Nabrit-led challenge).

As the first black assistant U.S. attorney appointed (by Attorney General Robert Kennedy) for the Eastern District of Virginia, Mason's own civil rights work often involved discrimination by the railroad industry. And while his nine-year stint as a federal lawyer prohibited much direct involvement in the desegregation battles in Norfolk in the 1960s, Mason's parents were major players.

But his introduction to the cutthroat business of legislating civil rights took place in the lily-white halls of the statehouse in Augusta, Maine.

Mason's path from Norfolk to Colby was a circuitous one. Refusing to allow her only son to attend segregated schools, his mother, a welfare administrator with a degree from the University of Chicago, moved with him to New York. His father, an immigrant from Trinidad who owned an insurance business in Norfolk, traveled back and forth while Mason went to school in Mt. Vernon, a suburb. "That was a prominent belief in many minority families," Mason said, "that education was the way out of this trap, this discriminatory situation. You just had to be better educated and know more and perform better. . . . There were people who had achieved and there were opportunities."

His first college experience was a stint at his dad's alma mater, Virginia Union University. With the student body decimated by the draft for World War II (Mason started college at 16 and wasn't eligible) and a dearth of pre-law courses, Union wasn't a good fit. Mason looked for a more suitable college and picked Colby.

He recalls being one of two or three African-American students on a campus where many students, including some from rural Maine, had never before met a minority. Mason enjoyed Colby and was on the Echo staff. "I hope that it provided a little educational background for some of my classmates," he said. "Some of them benefited, I'm sure. Others may not have been as open-minded, but if they weren't they kept it to themselves."

In fact, Mason didn't see blatant racial discrimination in Waterville until that night at the Elmwood. And while he briefly described the incident itself, it's the students' subsequent effort to bring an anti-discrimination statute to Maine that he recounts in detail.

Over Christmas break, the students"Jean Whiston '47, Shirley Lloyd '47, Donald Klein '47, Burt Krumholz '48, and others"got organized. Whiston went to the offices of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in New York City, met with then-NAACP general counsel (and future Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall. Whiston, who went on to a career in journalism, is deceased, but the Echo reported that Marshall was enthusiastic about the Colby group's efforts.

Whiston came away with a model public accommodations statute. She returned to Maine and, rebuffed by a local legislator, the group made several trips to Augusta to find someone to introduce the statute as a bill. One legislator"the only woman in the State Senate"agreed, and the statute, tacked on as an amendment to a law prohibiting discrimination against veterans, went to committee.

"It became perfectly apparent to us that a group of five or ten students coming down to the committee hearing was not going to be a big help," Mason said. "So we divided up and we went to various cities and towns and we talked. We'd get sponsored by the League of Women Voters or we'd get sponsored by a church group. We didn't have a car so we'd take the bus. . . .

"So when they had the hearing, the room was packed. It was standing room only, not just from Waterville but from around the state. About two or three of the blacks who lived in the state also showed up. They were voters. None of us voted; we weren't old enough."

The students stood in the back of the room and watched as speaker after speaker stood to praise the bill. "I don't recall anybody speaking against it," Mason said. "But we didn't know what was going on behind the scenes. You see, we were pretty new at the whole legislative process."

And the public part was only the tip of the iceberg. It turned out that the hotel lobby was determinedly opposing the amendment behind the scenes. When the committee reported out, it tabled the bill, 7-3. The bill was dead.

"You know why they opposed it?" Mason said. "They didn't want to take Jews [in their hotels]. They didn't have to worry about blacks. This was the 1940s, right after the war. There weren't that many blacks who had any interest in vacationing in Maine, and the numbers who could afford it were so few."

Was his group disappointed? "Sure," Mason said. "We worked very hard."

He recounts the experience matter of factly, perhaps because of his philosophical nature, but also because of the long view he takes of the Civil Rights movement. In that context the Elmwood Hotel incident pales in comparison to the tribulations of others caught in the throes of racial discrimination, as a driving tour of Norfolk with Mason demonstrated.

Navigating the city behind the wheel of a mini-van, dressed meticulously in a brown suit with a Norfolk State University lapel pin, Mason spoke of the 17 black children who enrolled in white public schools in Norfolk, only to see the city close the schools rather than let them attend. Mason's mother, Vivian Carter Mason, entered the fray. Her son pointed out the church where she started a school for the 17 to continue their education while the matter went through the courts. Ultimately, both white and black parents sued to have the schools reopened, allowing the 17 to attend. Mason's mother was among the activists who met with the children after each school day. "They didn't want to leave these kids out there with the feeling that the whole battle was only theirs," he said.

Mason pointed out the locations of banks formed for African Americans only to be closed by regulators who didn't want competition for white-owned financial institutions. He drove past what had been Norfolk Community Hospital, opened because the burgeoning ranks of African-American physicians weren't welcomed at white hospitals.

There still is concern about integration of faculty in the area's schools, with the best black teachers recruited to teach at white schools in Norfolk, Mason said. And housing prices and location of schools are contributing to what some see as a troubling trend toward resegregation.

"It's very interesting," Mason said, nearly 60 years after a hotel manager in Maine refused to serve him dinner. "The struggle continues."