By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Attorney William T. Mason, Jr., 96, the offspring of one of the most distinguished Norfolk families, died February 1 after a lifetime of professional and civic service to his community.
Mason was part of a remarkable generation of leaders which included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Father Joseph Green, Evelyn T. Butts, Dr. Hugo Owens, Mayor James Holley, G.W.C. Brown, and others.
These lawyers, clergy, activists, WWII and Korean era Veterans, and educators dedicated their skills during their careers to the ongoing Movement to enable African-Americans to overcome the barriers to equality.
In an extensive oral history interview with NSU Historian and author Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander, in March of 2008, Mason talked about his early life living in the Brambleton section of Norfolk, near Boulevard Terrace, the most elite neighborhood in the city during the 30s and 40s.
Many of the old homes built by Attorney Eugene Diggs and others still stand along Virginia Beach Boulevard, which was once known as Calvert Street.
He recalled playing with the children of the Black elite class who were physicians and lawyers who would become his lifelong friends.
Mr. Mason was the only child born to William T. Mason, Sr., and Vivian Carter Mason.
Mason, Sr. was an enterprising immigrant from Trinidad, a prominent real estate broker, insurance man, Administrator of the former Norfolk Community Hospital, and co-owner of Seaview Beach.
His mother Vivian Carter Mason was born In Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania and was a noted Social Worker in New York City. In Norfolk, she was a civic leader who worked to improve housing and education in segregated Norfolk.
She was the first African-American woman appointed to the Norfolk School Board and worked to establish a school for the Norfolk 17 when Norfolk closed six all-white schools to keep out the 17 Black students in the fall of 1958.
The school was at First Baptist Church Bute Street. The public schools were reopened, and the Norfolk 17 made history on February 2, 1959.
When not living In Norfolk, Mason said he spent a lot of time in New York with his mother’s family. His father remained in Norfolk running the family’s various business interests.
Mason known affectionately as “Sonny” by friends and colleagues often said his parents did not want him to attend segregated schools in Norfolk. His mother took him at an early age to Auburn, New York where he spent his early childhood.
He graduated from A. B. Davis High School in Mt. Vernon, New York.
He spent his first year of college at his father’s Alma Mater, Virginia Union University.
The United States entered World War II in December 1941. Mason said between 1943 and 1944, the school’s enrollment dropped when the draft caught up with the eligible men.
He was not drafted because of his sight. Virginia Union, Mason said, did not have a business major so he opted to transfer.
One of his high school teachers recommended he enroll at predominately white Colby College in Waterville, Maine from which he received his undergraduate degree in 1947.
“The number of Black students (at Colby when he arrived) was about ten,” he recalled during the Oral History interview. “I found it a very interesting experience.”
“As I proceeded through college it became apparent to me that while business was a fine idea, but by the same token, it looked to me like there were going to be a lot more opportunities – if you wanted to change some of the systems and address some of the problems … legal training would be very useful … very helpful and very serviceable in achieving that end.”
Mr. Mason, Jr. attended Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., which trained most of the nation’s African-American lawyers at the time. He graduated in 1950 and passed the Virginia State Bar in February 1951.
Mason said he believed that returning to Norfolk was the best option because “home was where he was needed.”
Compared to New York or Maine, Virginia Blacks were still faced with segregation in all areas of economic and social life.
Mason and other young lawyers, doctors, and educators were determined to help dismantle Jim Crow and give Black people some semblance of legal representation.
He said after War II, lawyers Victor Ashe, James Overton (Portsmouth), Eugene Diggs, and Hilary Jones, returned to Norfolk to practice in the late 40s and into the 50s.
Mason said when he returned home there was only one Black law firm run by two African-American women: Bertha Douglas and T. Ione Diggs.
“They (the Black men) were young to the law but the men were all veterans of World War II,” he said in the oral interview. “But there were no firms, no Black firms, and no one was in a position to hire an associate, so that meant you had to open your own office.”
Mason was among those lawyers who formed solo practices.
“My office was in a building called the Metropolitan Bank Building, which was on the northeast corner of Church St. and Brambleton,” he recalled. “That building was owned by the Metropolitan Realty Corp. and my father was the president There had been a Black bank on the first floor called the Metropolitan Bank and Trust Company, one of five that existed in Norfolk from the early 1900s to the late early 1960s.”
In 1963, appointed by President Kennedy, Mr. Mason recommended by U. S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, brother to President John F. Kennedy, became the first African-American appointed an Assistant U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, assigned to the Norfolk, Virginia office. He served there until July 1972.
He subsequently established the first large interracial law firm in Norfolk: Mason, Robinson, Eichler, and Zaleskie. The other principals were Delegate William P. Robinson, Jr., Atty. Jon Eichler and Atty. Alan Zaleski.
As an outstanding Civil Rights Attorney, Mason consulted on cases with noted Richmond, Va. Civil Rights Attorneys Oliver Hill and Samuel Tucker. He also served as a Co-Operating Attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, INC., the organization was first led in New York by Thurgood Marshall before he is appointed associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A childhood friend of G. W. C. Brown, III, and a neighbor of Dr. Lyman B. Brooks, the first President of Norfolk State University, Attorney Mason was appointed to Norfolk State University’s first Board of Visitors, serving from 1969-1973. Thereafter, he joined the NSU Foundation Board of Directors and served for 46 years hardly ever missing meetings. He loved his work helping to obtain scholarships for NSU students.
Attorney Mason also served on the boards of the Norfolk United Way, the Urban League of Hampton Roads Inc., The Southampton Roads Bar Association, and as a Visitor to Colby College.
He used his steadfastness, diligence, God-given talents, legal skills, and finances to help many other organizations and individuals, including the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center in Norfolk and the Norfolk Planning Council.
He was a lifelong member of the Old Dominion Bar Association.
Among his many awards are the Impacting Lives Award from the New Journal and Guide in 2018 and the Virginia Law Library in Richmond, Va. recognition.
Attorney Mason leaves to mourn his passing and carry forward the torch of public service to many younger lawyers, friends, and individuals who admire his example of professionalism and generosity and are inspired to likewise aim to help mankind.
Memorial Donations may be sent to NSU Foundation, 700 Park Avenue HBW #410; Norfolk, Virginia 23504.