Black History: Special Delivery!!
Mahala Ashley Dickerson (1912—2007) made history, becoming the first African American female attorney to be admitted to the Alaska and Alabama bar associations. Advocacy for the poor, women, and minorities was a hallmark of her legal career. Dickerson was born in Montgomery County, outside of Montgomery, Alabama. She had two sisters, Erna and Harriet. Dickerson attended Miss White’s School For Girls, which was also known as the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls. It was a private, K-8 school for African American girls. The school was started in 1886 by two white Christian educators, Alice White and H. Margaret Beard. White and Beard desired to provide an excellent education for African American girls as well as instill a sense of confidence a pride in the girls they educated. The school also promoted racial equality. The school’s curriculum focused on Christian morality, academic courses, and vocational education. All students were required to wear uniforms and were discouraged from wearing makeup and jewelry. Surprisingly students were encouraged to wear their hair, “natural” and not straighten it. It was here that Dickerson, would meet civil rights leader, Rosa Parks, who was also a student. The two would forge a life-long friendship.
Dickerson went on to attend Fisk University and graduated in 1935 with a sociology degree. She married Henry Dickerson in 1938. They had triplet sons, Alfred, John, and Chris. The two divorced in 1939. Dickerson obtained her law degree from Howard University in 1948 and was also admitted to the Alabama Bar the same year. She established a law office in Montgomery and Tuskegee Alabama. Dickerson married again and relocated in 1951, uniting with Frank Beckwith who was an attorney and politician from Indianapolis, Indiana. She became the second African American woman to be admitted to the Indiana bar. Their marriage also ended in divorce. She relocated to Alaska in 1958 and homsteaded there. She was the first African American admitted to the bar in Alaska. Alaska had few female attorneys at the time. Dickerson was known for her advocacy for the poor, women and people of color. She accepted many pro bono cases and also served as a mentor to many attorneys of color.
One of her most prominent court cases was an equal pay suit she brought on behalf of a female professor at the University of Alaska who was being paid at a rate lower than her male counterparts. She initially lost the case but the verdict was reversed on appeal. While defending others against inequality and injustice, Dickerson herself was also subjected to racial and gender discrimination. In 1983, Dickerson was selected as president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. In 1998, she published an autobiography, “Delayed Justice For Sale”. She practiced law until her death in 2007 in Waisila, Alaska. She was buried on her homestead property.
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