A Man Remembers
by Rachel Coleman
Growing up in Lubbock, Texas before the civil rights movement, Richard Mason moved from place to place as his sharecropper father tried to support the family. He attended all-black schools. And he contended with the difficulties presented by Jim Crow laws designed to keep races separate, laws enforced with special rigor in east Texas. Even so, the longtime Liberal resident looks back on his formative years and sees the positive.
"I grew up with the experience of being nurtured daily by the community around me," he said. "It was so engrained in me by my people that I was valuable. I grew up with my dignity."
In May, that sense of dignity and self-possession was reinforced by the community at large when Mason traveled to Lubbock to receive an award for his accomplishments as a basketball player. At a banquet honoring high school athletes citywide from the years 1939 to 2012, Mason received an award for his accomplishments and spoke on behalf of the 1953 basketball team from Dunbar High School, an all-black institution that has since merged and changed its name. The experience of returning to his hometown, now an integrated community, to speak to a packed house of mostly white audience members, was profound in itself, Mason said. But the evening ended with something Mason never expected to see or experience in his lifetime:
"I got a standing ovation," he said. "The atmosphere was beautiful. It was a special occasion, and everyone seemed to appreciate what it represented."
Mason's memories of growing up in a Jim Crow society are dark; no surprise there. But his life was continually illuminated by "a certain kind of special white people," as he recalls them, people who broke the mold of racial discrimination to relate to him as an individual.
"There were always these people who supported certain things within black culture, because they valued them," he said. "In Lubbock, our high school yearbook was financially supported by white businesses that bought advertising. And whenever there was a kid who had something special going on, whether it was athletic ability or intelligence or musical talent, there always seemed to be someone in the white community, a person who would provide key support to help the student get over the hump."
Mason recalls a lawyer named Bob Huff who played that role in his life. As Mason's team traveled back from an out-of-town game, "our bus flipped three times going over a hill on a frosted highway," he said. "I had three fractured vertebrae in my neck, and I needed a lawyer. One of my coaches told me to do that. Well, the lawyer I met was impressed with me, and he started encouraging me to enroll in college and study law. I was an athlete, and law was the furthest thing from my mind. But he persisted, and it turned out that I did exactly that."
Though Mason interrupted his studies to get married and begin a family, he credits those adolescent experiences for setting him on a course of self-education, advocacy and community involvement that continued when he moved to Kansas in 1962.
"Everything I've been involved in is directly connected to my background, and to the people who came into my life at certain times," he said. Leaders in the black community had done the same throughout the years, he noted.
"My fourth grade year, our family stopped moving around, but by that time I had fallen so far behind, I really couldn't read. My teacher May Simmons took the time to work with several of us who had this same problem, and she started us in the fundamentals, working from A to Z. I went from not being able to read, to being one of the top readers and spellers, all because of the the kind of teacher I had." That spring, Mason tried out for a part in the school play and won the leading role.
Years later, another teacher intervened in Mason's life. By the time he'd reached seventh grade, his parents had separated and school "was so boring to me," he remembered. "I was on my own, and I wanted to quit school and get a job. That was a no-no, and my mother wouldn't permit it." Even so, Mason struggled to find motivation until his physical education teacher encouraged him to give basketball a try.
"That's what kept me in school," he said. "I became a good outside player, and a team player. I wasn't hung up on scoring. As long as we were out on the court cooking, I just wanted to keep it up, and win."
The 1953 championship was the school's first ever, and Mason can still recall how each quarter unfolded in each game that led to the title. At times, he said, the team struggled to beat more experienced teams with taller players and deeper benches.
"We felt like amateurs out there," he said. "At one point, we were down by 12 points, and Coach Earnest P. Mallory called time out and said, 'Shoot the ball, Mace. Good as you can, shoot. And if you don't start shooting, I'm going to put you on the bench."
Back then, Mason said, "I was shooting three-pointers, even though they didn't have a special category for them. But I was a reluctant shooter." After his coach's talk, Mason took the first available shot, and "I was lucky enough to make it," he said, "and then I made my second." When he made his fourth, "I got a certain kind of feeling, a sensation from my head down to my feet. It's like listening to good music. You can feel it and your teammates can feel it. I stopped counting after I made nine in a row, and while that was the only time this happened to me in a game, we walked away with the district championship and went on to state."
Years later, as Mason settled into life in Southwest Kansas, he repeated his pattern of looking past obstacles to seek out opportunities for success. He'd left Texas behind, dissatisfied with the notion that black people should occupy themselves shining shoes, picking and chopping cotton, washing dishes, mowing lawns, "unless you wanted to be a teacher in the segregated schools," he recalled. While Jim Crow law wasn't officially part of Kansas culture, Mason found that many of the same assumptions remained in place. Even so, he set out to try for something better. The first person of color to work at the Liberal Police Department, he served as a dispatcher after the city commission approved his application. When a police sergeant refused to work with him, the chief said, "the door to my office is never locked, and you can leave your resignation there anytime," Mason recalled. That kind of support from the chief of police and the captain enabled Mason to integrate the department, where he worked until moving to Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Company, from which he eventually retired.
Mason also worked in various community groups to advocate for better relations between the black and white communities in Liberal, through church and civic efforts. He served on the "Focus on the Future" committee in the early 1990s, and continues to volunteer for NELL, North East Liberal Leadership, which seeks to train and equip young people of color who live in low-income areas of Liberal, and to recognize responsible homeowners for efforts in beautification and neighborhood improvement.
The award from the athletic community in Lubbock was especially meaningful to Mason, who does not discount the role sports can play in helping young people reach for all-around excellence in life, and for understanding and respecting others.
"Sports is like integration itself," he said. "Kids get together and there are always some of them who get this positive thing, who get to know each other and realize, 'goodness, I didn't know these kids were just like me.' That's how things begin to change. The people who liked Jim Crow, the people who think a black man is still supposed to be a janitor — those people are getting fewer and older, and the young kids are gravitating away from that mentality."
Receiving the medal was an honor, Mason said. But the experience of joining with other likeminded people to celebrate what's possible when color is no longer a barrier?
"That was beautiful."