This article was published On Feb. 21, 2007
Mahala Ashley Dickerson, the state’s first black lawyer, died Monday at her family homestead in Wasilla after a short illness. She was 94.
Dickerson, who was raised in the South before the era of civil rights, blazed a trail for black women in the world of law. Aside from her accomplishments in Alaska, she became the first female attorney in her home state of Alabama in 1948 and the second black woman admitted to the bar in Indiana in 1951. She was also the first black homesteader in the Mat-Su.
Attorney Rex Butler, whom Dickerson convinced to come to Anchorage, said, "I remember one lawyer telling me one time, he said, 'Rex, you see those mountains out there?' He said, 'Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson.' "
Dickerson had a reputation as an advocate for the poor and underprivileged. She argued many cases involving racial and gender discrimination, taking on the Anchorage Police Department and the University of Alaska, among other institutions.
"In my life, I didn't have but two things to do. Those were to stay black and to die. I'm just not afraid to fight somebody big, " she told the Daily News in 1984, when, at age 71, she was still working 12-hour days at her Fairview law office. "Whenever there's somebody being mistreated, if they want me, I'll help them."
Dickerson 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.
Dickerson graduated from Fisk University in 1935, married Henry Dickerson and had triplets, Alfred, John and Chris. She later divorced, and when the boys were 6, she went to Howard University School of Law, becoming one of four women to graduate in her class of '36. After working as an attorney in Alabama and Indiana, she moved to Alaska with her sons, where she homesteaded in the Valley.
"I didn't know a single person, and there were very few black people in Alaska then, but everyone welcomed me, white and black alike, " she said in a 2001 interview.
Dickerson opened her law practice in Anchorage in 1959, and her name is still on the answering machine, along with that of her long-time law partner, Johnny Gibbons. 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, a justice of the nation's top court who has since retired.
Dickerson wrote a book about her life, "Delayed Justice for Sale, " in 1998. She continued to practiced law until she was 91.
In addition to encouraging Butler to practice in Anchorage, she was a mentor to many other young attorneys, Butler said.
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.
He and his wife visited Dickerson over the weekend. She'd been lucid until a stroke a few weeks ago that left her without speech, he said. She responded to them in the room, he said, and when they left, she smiled and closed her eyes.
"That's our lasting picture of her, " he said.
Dickerson's legacy will be the way she overcame obstacles, giving back to the community, said Celeste Hodge, former local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who now runs Mayor Mark Begich's office of equal opportunity.
"Once you know her story, especially as an African-American woman, you know that you are able to achieve anything, " Hodge said.
Dickerson will be buried on her land near her son, Alfred, who died in 1960. Sons John and Chris will attend a private Quaker graveside service today. A memorial will be held at a later date.