Mason’s medical office named to National Register

The medical office of longtime civil rights icon Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr. has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation calls attention to the professional life of a man who has been more widely recognized for his efforts in promoting civil rights, with the hallmark achievement being the 1960s wade-ins on the Biloxi beach. Mason, who was born in Jackson in 1928, died July 8, 2006.

“Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr.’s Medical Office is the embodiment of a cultural asset that connects us to an exceptional American and a pivotal time in the history of our country,” said the author of the nomination, Laura Ewen Blokker, an adjunct lecturer and assistant director, Master of Preservation Studies at the Tulane School of Architecture.

Blokker wrote the nomination as part of an effort of the city and Mississippi Department of Archives and History to create a 29-page catalog, East Biloxi African American and Civil Right Historic Resources Survey 2017.

“When you look back on urban renewal, Camille and then Katrina, you realize that we have lost and continue to lose historic sites in east Biloxi,” said Biloxi Historical Administrator Bill Raymond, who coordinated a meeting at Our Mother of Sorrows in east Biloxi earlier this year.

The meeting was to kick off an effort to document historic significant signs in east Biloxi, and, Raymond added, the national designation of Dr. Mason’s office “illustrates just how significant and important these sites are, not only to our community, but to the country.”

Mason’s office, at 670 Division St, a block east of Main Street and in the heart of the city’s predominantly African American community, was constructed in 1966.

Mason, after graduating from Tennessee State and Howard University Medical College, set up his practice in the former office of Dr. Velma Wesley, which was at 439½ Division, at the northwest corner of Nixon Street. Dr. Wesley was leaving Biloxi to join her husband at a hospital in Detroit.

The modest, wood-frame building accommodated one examining room, a consultation room, a waiting room, a lab, and a restroom and was cooled with a window air-conditioning unit.

Ten years later, Mason hired the Biloxi firm of Collins & Collins, namely architect John T. Collins, to design the modern office.

In fact, that Mason hired the “white architectural firm of Collins & Collins,” which had only recently designed the U.S. Post Office on Main Street and had designed a number of other significant public buildings in Biloxi, “definitely made a statement as did the building he produced,” wrote Blokker in the nomination form.

The one-story, brick-veneer office featured a reception area, three examining rooms, a laboratory, two bathrooms and was heated and cooled with a central air-conditioning system housed in its own mechanical room.

Said the nomination:

“With its strong horizontal lines, ribbon window, and facade articulated by brise-soleil inspired walls and overhang, it boldly announced the modern era had come to Division Street.

“The office provided a new level of comfort, privacy, and professionalism for Dr. Mason’s patients, and its water fountain was a beacon for local kids who would stop in for a cool drink.”

The opening of the new office marked a host of Civil Rights and professional milestones for Mason, “and his office continued to be a headquarters for both,” the nomination said.

“Dr. Mason was finally accepted as a full member of the Coast Counties Medical Association in 1968. Two years later, in 1968, Gov. John Bell Williams appointed Mason to the governing board of the Division of Comprehensive Health, making the Biloxi physician “one of the first black appointees to any state board or commission since Reconstruction.” That same year, Mason was selected through county conventions as one of three black delegates – along with Charles Evers and Dr. Matthew Page – to attend the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Evers and Page dropped out, leaving Mason as the sole African-American member of the regular delegation in Chicago that year.

And it was on Aug. 16, 1968, a ruling on the beach case finally came in favor of the United States that declared the Harrison County beaches were open to all general public “enjoyment, without unreasonable interference, of access to the water for swimming, bathing, boating, fishing, and other customary aquatic pursuits.”

Mason’s leadership also caught the attention of state and federal leaders. President Richard Nixon sought his advice on school desegregation, Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House on three occasions. Mississippi Govs. John Bell Williams, William Winter and Cliff Finch all appointed him to professional boards, and Finch took the extraordinary step of making Mason’s appointment to a state medical licensure board an executive order since the legislature refused to confirm the nomination.
See the nomination to the National Register of Historic Places
See photos of Dr. Mason’s office, inside and out
Read about other historic sites in east Biloxi