Part of a continuing weekly series on Anchorage history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
In May 1982, Rosa Parks visited Alaska for the first time. Buried in the Anchorage Times coverage was a single line explaining why she came to Alaska, “at the request of a childhood friend, attorney Mahala Ashley Dickerson.”
Alaska newspapers understandably focused on the civil rights icon, but Dickerson was herself already a legend in many respects, one who today deserves more popular acclaim than she has received.
Mahala Ashley was born in 1912 in Montgomery, Alabama. A few years later, an uncle died in an elevator shaft at work. The employer denied all fault in the accident and refused to compensate the widow. Another uncle rode to Birmingham and hired a lawyer, who won the desired compensation, saving the widow and children from financial ruin. Only 5 years old at the time, Dickerson recounted in her 1998 memoir, “Delayed Justice for Sale: An Autobiography”: “that was perhaps the first spark of my desire to become a lawyer.”
Her family originally lived 12 miles outside Montgomery, but when their children came of school age, they moved into town. This new home was on Cleveland Avenue, now Rosa Parks Boulevard. Alabama public education for black children ended with the sixth grade then, and her parents subsequently enrolled her in a private school, where she met Rosa McCauley, later Rosa Parks.
The young Mahala was a self-described bookworm, escaping into the worlds of “Anne of Green Gables,” “Little Women,” and “Pollyanna.” The city outside the safe world of her books was sharply defined by Jim Crow laws and racial violence. She sometimes watched the school buses for white children drive past while the passengers yelled insults and made faces. Her father had to drive her and her sisters to school. City officials repeatedly barred her parents from registering to vote. A sign at the city limits noted Montgomery was the “Cradle of the Confederacy.”
After graduating from Tennessee’s Fisk University in 1935, Dickerson taught for several years before taking better paying jobs, including selling cosmetics. During World War II, she worked at the Tuskegee Army Airfield and Tuskegee Institute, including with the groundbreaking sociologist Monroe Work. When Work died in 1945, she followed the transfer of much of his research to Howard University in Washington, D.C. There, she worked in the day and took classes at night. One of her professors was Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice. In 1948, she graduated cum laude from the Howard University School of Law, finally fulfilling her 30-year-old dream.
She returned to Alabama, passed the bar and became the first female African American lawyer in that state’s history. In her first court appearance, as she approached the well, a large, armed sheriff ordered her to the back of the segregated courtroom. The sheriff did not believe she was a lawyer; the judge and other lawyers had to intervene.
While she had no difficulty finding clients, she quickly tired of Montgomery. “The bruises inflicted by the segregated pattern of our society remain, and will perhaps remain forever,” said Dickerson in her memoir. “Perhaps I should go further than calling them bruises and call them scars.”
In 1951, she relocated to Indianapolis, becoming the second female black lawyer in the state. Unfortunately, Indiana was too often like Alabama. Despite a medical emergency, a segregated Indianapolis hospital denied her admittance. Several restaurants and hotels denied her service. Perhaps worst of all for the devout Quaker, the Indianapolis chapter denied her entry. Decades later in her autobiography, Dickerson said she could not forget “the humiliation my clients and I, and my race in general, suffered” in Indiana.
In 1958, she vacationed in Alaska. She recalled in a 1991 interview, “When I hit the soil and smelled the air, I knew it was something I had been waiting for.” She returned to Indianapolis, settled her affairs and was on the Alcan Highway one month later. Despite no friends or contacts in Alaska, the 45-year-old found opportunities unlike any in Alabama or Indiana. Dickerson filed for a 160-acre homestead near Wasilla and received patent on the property three days before the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
In 1959, she opened an office in Fairview on 15th Avenue. She was the first black lawyer to pass the Alaska bar. “Being black and female, I had some [difficulties],” said Dickerson in her memoir. The Anchorage land office initially refused to allow her to file for a homestead, and realtors rebuffed her inquiries for office space. “They’d see my black face, and suddenly the property I was inquiring about would mysteriously have just been rented.” Housing discrimination was pervasive in Anchorage. Racially restrictive covenants were common in deeds, and the Anchorage Times ran “whites only” classifieds through the mid-1960s.
In the way that Alaska often provides fresh starts, the one Anchorage landowner willing to rent office space to Dickerson claimed to have done so as a form of therapy. “You see,” Dickerson recalled him saying, “I was a young Nazi under Hitler and I wanted to be sure that I was cured — that I was not really that kind of person inside — and it did me good to rent you that office.”
Over the years, Dickerson expanded her office, relocating into a larger building on the same property, 1330 E. 15th Avenue. The small house that served as her original office was cleared around 2000, part of a project that expanded East 15th Avenue. The firm remains open as Dickerson & Gibbons.
By 1960, she was the lead attorney representing a group of Fairview property owners opposed to annexation into Anchorage, a case appealed to though not heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the 1970s, she won landmark decisions against the State of Alaska and the University of Alaska for sexual discrimination, winning equal pay for female magistrates and professors, respectively.
In 1983, she became the first black president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. In 1995, the American Bar Association awarded her the Margaret Brent Award, an honor given to the most outstanding of American female lawyers. Dickerson could justifiably brag in her autobiography: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg got hers before me, but I got mine before Sandra Day O’Connor.” She continued to practice until she was 91, only a few years before her 2007 death.
Despite her Quaker faith, she was known for her ferocity. “I found that so many of many cases, which later turned out to be landmark cases, came to me because I was the only attorney who had the guts to take them or was naïve enough to take them.” Her confrontations, fueled by an utter lack of patience for fools, became the stuff of Anchorage legal legend.
One such incident in her memoir stands out. After losing a motion, an opposing counsel confronted her outside the courtroom. As tempers rose, he threatened her with raised fists. “I immediately jerked off my shoe, which at that time had a spiked steel heel, and said ‘If you hit me, I’ll kill you.’ ”
Her opponent fled and later apologized. However, the story grew in the telling until it had her chasing him from the courthouse to the Captain Cook Hotel, hitting him in the head with her shoe along the way.
For Dickerson, life in Alaska did not have to be perfect, simply better than her experiences in Montgomery and Indiana. She saw the flaws in Alaska and Alaskans. During her decades in Anchorage, she experienced, witnessed or litigated countless incidents of discrimination. Her battles with the Anchorage Police Department could fill their own article.
Still, an informed Dickerson adamantly declared in a 1999 interview for the Matanuska-Susitna Historical Commission that Alaska was “the best place in the world, the best people, the most beautiful place in the world.”
[Mahala Dickerson’s 2007 obituary: Pioneer Alaska lawyer Dickerson dies at 94]
Bazeley, Judith. “An Interview with M. Ashley Dickerson.” Alaska Bar Rag 5, nos. 7, 8, 9 (1982): 1, 4, 11, 12, 14.
Dickerson, Mahala Ashley. Delayed Justice for Sale: An Autobiography. Anchorage: Al-Acres, Inc., 1998.
Dickerson, Mahala Ashley. Interviewed by Amber Bolinder, n.p., April 3, 1999. Matanuska-Susitna Borough Historical Commission Recordings, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Dickerson, Mahala Ashley Dickerson. Interviewed by Jean Lester, Wasilla, AK, September 8, 1991. Faces of Alaska from Barrow to Wrangell Tapes, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Morgenstern, Barbara L. “WLJ Interview—Mahala Ashley Dickerson.” Women Lawyers Journal 81, no. 4 (1995), 11-14.
Murkowski, Carol. “Civil Rights Activist Carries Cause to Anchorage.” Anchorage Times, May 16, 1982, 4.
O’Malley, Julia. “Pioneer Alaska Lawyer Dickerson Dies at 94.” Anchorage Daily News, February 21, 2007, A1.