Mahala Ashley Dickerson was a trailblazer for justice who fought for marginalized people her whole life. A childhood classmate of Rosa Parks, in the 1940s and 1950s she became the first African American female attorney in Alabama, then the second Black woman to practice law in Indiana, and then the first Black attorney in Alaska—where she played a crucial role in the development of the Alaskan Friends community.
In this week’s video, some of those close to Mahala look back at her legacy—and remind us of the work yet to be done in confronting White cultural supremacy and its enduring harm. “I feel like that is something that she would really, she would smile upon,” says Taylor Brelsford. “She would be really proud that this ongoing quest for greater justice, for equality, continues in new forms.”
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Jan Bronson: I knew Mahala Ashley Dickerson because my family homesteaded two miles from where her her homestead was. So, from birth to age 18 she was my neighbor, and then for 30 years afterward she was my friend.
Who was Mahala Ashley Dickerson?
Mahala Ashley Dickerson was just a trailblazer for justice. She fought for marginalized people her whole life. She was a classmate of Rosa Parks from third grade through high school. She became the first African American female attorney in Alabama, the second one in Indiana. She moved to Alaska; she homesteaded; she became a Quaker; she became the first Black attorney period in Alaska.; and just fought for people and saw possibilities that other people didn’t see and created those pathways for other people as well as herself.
Getting to Alaska
Taylor Brelsford: Mahala was raised in a family of educators. She believed, obviously, throughout her life in the power of education and she was unbowed by the discrimination, the indignity, of the Jim Crow South.
Johnny Gibbons: She practiced in Alabama until 1952 and then she moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and she practiced there until 1958. In 1958, she told me that she came to Alaska for a vacation — a 30 day vacation– and all she knows is she went back, packed her belongings in her Jeep, and drove back to Alaska. And she homesteaded 150-acres in Wasilla, Alaska, which is about 50 miles north of Anchorage here. And that homestead remained– she was there until she passed away at 94.
Mahala’s Involvement with Alaskan Quakers
I think the principles that are held by Friends only helped her become who she ultimately became, and it was a testament that the two were destined to be intertwined.
Taylor Brelsford: Well, Mahala spoke with wonder about the influence of Pendle Hill. She spent a summer there in 1950, and I believe that– I know that she was drawn to Quakerism in a deep and an abiding way forevermore.
Jan Bronson: When Mahala Ashley Dickerson moved to Alaska she helped establish Alaska Friends Conference, and carried that same sense of “by God we’re gonna fix things.” I mean she was spiritual and she was not gonna wait around.
Just last year Friends bought the remaining 22-acres of her homestead, including her home, and we are in the process now of discerning how best to carry forward her legacy and her work.
The Unfinished Business of Mahala’s Legacy
Taylor Brelsford: I think it’s probably important to say that there’s unfinished business in Mahala’s legacy. These stirrings of utter cluelessness about White supremacy that lingers in sort of the cultural surrounding of most of us White people in Quakerism, the stirring in recent years out across the Religious Society of Friends to confront and understand the heritage of White cultural supremacy and the enduring harm that it does that was not always visible to all of us. That effort, in my mind, is continuing the unfinished work represented in the life of Mahala Dickerson.
Jan Bronson: We know we can’t just learn the lessons she already learned or rest on her laurels; we have to see what’s next in terms of justice. One thing that is becoming apparent is the realization that Mahala Ashley Dickerson’s homestead and my homestead were taken from the Knik Dena’ina people, and we need to grapple with that – we want to grapple with that. We want to figure out– or I want to figure out– what does it mean to be a decolonized faith community?
Taylor Brelsford: I feel like that is also something that she would really, she would smile upon. She would be really proud that this ongoing quest for greater justice, for equality, continues in new forms.
- 1) How do we carry on the legacy of those who came before us?
- 2) Jan Bronson poses the question, “What does it mean to be a decolonized faith community?” What does it mean to you and/or your meeting?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.