Doctor noted for role in Mississippi beach desegregation
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The National Register of Historic Places now includes the office of an African-American physician who faced arrests and violence as he led a nearly decade-long effort to desegregate beaches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The city of Biloxi announced Wednesday that the National Park Service recently approved the listing for the office of Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., who died in 2006.
Mason was born in Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson in 1928. The state’s only medical school, at the University of Mississippi, remained segregated when he was a young man, and Mason earned his degree in the early 1950s from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington.
Mason worked as a general practice physician in Biloxi for a decade before he had his own medical office built in 1966 in an African-American neighborhood near downtown, just a few blocks from the beach. It’s that modest one-story building that is listed on the National Register.
Starting in 1959, Mason led “wade-in” protests to challenge segregated public beaches in Biloxi. The nomination to put his office on the National Register quotes from “Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black Doctor’s Civil Rights Struggle,” Mason’s memoir published in 2000, which he wrote with historian James Patterson Smith.
“Local practice reserved God’s sunrises and sunsets over the glistening waters and white sands of Biloxi beach for the exclusive enjoyment of white folks,” they wrote. “For a man who loved swimming and who had gloried in the free use of the parks in Chicago and Washington, D.C., the idea that a marvelous oak-lined public beach was forbidden territory was just too much to abide.”
In what became known locally as “Bloody Sunday,” a white mob armed with chains, sticks and other weapons attacked more than 100 black people participating in a wade-in that Mason organized in 1960. Violence continued away from the beach. Soon after that, Mason and others organized the first Biloxi branch of the NAACP, and he was president of the local group for 34 years.
After other wade-ins and an extensive legal fight, a federal court ruled in 1968 that Mississippi Gulf Coast beaches were open to all.
Also in 1968, Mason became one of the first black citizens since Reconstruction to serve on a state board in Mississippi when Gov. John Bell Williams appointed him to the board of the Division of Comprehensive Health. Cliff Finch, who was governor 1976-80, appointed Mason to the state Board of Medical Licensure.
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