Dr. Gilbert R. Mason, Sr.

 Physician, Activist, Citizen

Background and Early Life

Career

Gilbert Rutledge Mason Sr. was born on October 7, 1928 at home in Jackson, Mississippi. Named after English explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert and early American politician John Rutledge, he was the third and last child of Willie Atwood Mason and Alean Jackson Mason, following eldest child Willie Louis Mason and sister Rozelia Mason (later Stamps). 


He was a preternaturally curious and insightful child and a voracious reader. Throughout his early life, he excelled academically in grammar school, and also excitedly achieved success in Boy Scouting. It was while in junior high that he discovered a penchant for medicine and the healing arts.

During his tenure at Lanier High School, he was a champion debater, played football and lettered in swimming, and served as the Art Director of the Maroon and White yearbook. 

In 1943, he became only the second black Mississippian to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. 

He graduated from Lanier in 1945 at the tender age of 16, and enrolled at Tennessee State University in Nashville, having been rewarded several merit scholarships.

During his freshman year, he met and fell in love with Natalie Lorraine Hamlar of Roanoke, VA, who he courted while pursing a dual degree in chemistry and biology with a minor in math. He became a member of the Beta Omicron chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.  A textbook Renaissance man, Mason also served as editor-in-chief on The Tennessean yearbook for two years, served as class president in student government all four years, and also spent two years on the TSU swim team. 


He graduated with high distinction in 1949 and then pursued a Doctor of Medicine degree at Howard University in Washington DC. Prior to matriculation, he worked as a collector in the 1950 United States Census and worked during the summers in Chicago. Gilbert and Natalie were married in Roanoke on July 29, 1950 and settled into newlywed life as graduate students in the Shaw neighborhood. 


While at Howard, he served as student body representative for the School of Medicine, and audited classes in various disciplines, taking full advantage of being enrolled at "the Mecca", the zenith of Black academia of the era.

He graduated from Howard with honors in 1954, the same year he and Natalie welcomed their only child, Gilbert Rutledge, Jr.

Shortly after graduation, Mason embarked on a year-long internship at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the foremost post-graduate training institutions for African-American physicians. He began pursuing the specialty of family medicine and also took it upon himself to gain training in general surgery, which would make him a more versatile physician during his career.


Determined to make his home back in his native state, Dr. Mason identified a practice on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi that he could make his own. He, Natalie, and Gilbert Jr. moved there in 1955 and he established his medical practice in East Biloxi.  He became affiliated with the Biloxi Hospital (later known as Howard Memorial Hospital), obtaining hospital privileges, but due to segregative policies was limited to courtesy staff status from 1955 to 1966. In 1967, he was conferred full staff privileges. He also proudly earned certification as a Diplomate of the American Academy of Family Physicians. 

Later, he would become a member of the MS State Board of Health, licensing State Board of Medical Examiners, and was selected to several leadership positions on the medical staffs of Biloxi Regional Medical Center, Select Specialty Hospital, and Gulf Coast Medical Center. His private practice on Division Street in Biloxi was a sanctuary for many people in the Black community, and he delivered most, if not all, of the babies in the Black community for more than two decades.

Dr. Mason also served for many years as contract physician for the US Public Health Service, caring for fishermen and their families, and for members of the Merchant Marine.


He was well respected throughout the local and state medical community for his thoughtful fidelity to his patients, as well as his tenacity in ensuring all of them received optimal medical care. In 1974, he was a featured speaker at the 1974 Howard University College of Medicine commencement, which coincided with his 20 year anniversary, speaking to the work of "The Brave Young Physicians". He continued house calls until the mid-1990's, and only slowed down after a December 1997 stroke made it more challenging to continue his practice. 

Dr. Mason retired in spring 2002 to much acclaim for his near half-century of service by patients, fellow physicians, city leaders, and other parters in his work to achieve equitable access to health care.

Later Life and Career

After his wife of 49 years passed away in 1999, Dr. Mason focused most of his time on his practice and his remaining commitments in the community. 

Chief among them were his efforts to have the Mississippi state flag changed via referendum in 2002, which proved unsuccessful.

He remained active in the state leadership of the Mississippi NAACP, Sigma Phi Psi honor fraternity, and his beloved Alpha Phi Alpha,  as well as with his church, First Missionary Baptist on Esters Blvd.

He also remained active with the Mississippi State Board of Archives and History.

Dr. Mason suffered a debilitating second stroke in February 2005, and, after many months of rehabilitation, passed away on July 8, 2006.

Community Activism

Dr. Mason's commitment to serving the community as a private citizen began in earnest as soon as he and his family moved to Biloxi in 1955. 

He became a Scoutmaster, leading Troop 416 for 15 years, beginning in 1959. He also became a member of the PTA, a 33rd degree Mason at the local Masonic Lodge, and an Elk. 

He also was one of the founders of the Zeta Mu Lambda alumni chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and served as a charter member of both the Beta Gamma Boule in Jackson, MS and Delta Omicron Boule of Sigma Psi Phi Fraternity.


His most notable contributions to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the pivotal work to combat injustice during the Civil Rights Movement came through his fights for desegregation of public schools and hospitals, establishing voting rights, and most notably, staging non-violent demonstrations to challenge the segregation of beaches in Harrison County. 


Dr. Mason served as founder and President of the Biloxi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founding the chapter in 1960. He spearheaded the beach wade-ins in 1959, 1960, and 1963, often cited as the first concerted acts of civil disobedience undertaken in Mississippi during the Movement. The dangerous and divisive demonstrations, as well as a court case that challenged the long-held belief of white residents that the beach was their private property, culminated in a landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court in 1968 that the beaches be open to all. To hear more of his account of the initial wade-ins, listen to his testimony here.


Alongside Medgar Evers and Dovie Hudson, Dr. Mason also served as lead plaintiff in the first school desegregation suit in Mississippi (on behalf of his son Gilbert Jr.) and, despite ongoing death threats and bomb scares as well as being subject to surveillance by the state-sanctioned Sovereignty Commission, resulted in the schools becoming equal access via court decree in August 1968.


Mason collaborated with other Mississippi NAACP activists, including Winston Hudson, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry and Medgar Evers (becoming close friends with him and serving as a pallbearer after his tragic assassination).

 He helped the NAACP join with CORE, SNCC and SCLC to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Mason played a role in COFO's massive black voter registration drive, the Freedom Summer of 1964.  He served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1988.


He continued as founding president of the Biloxi branch until 1997, serving as President emeritus until his death, and as state Vice President until retiring in 2003.