MACK MASON & SARAH A. THOMPSON
The morning of September 25, 1880 came into Washington County, Georgia, cool and clear, with wide blue skies and light breezes. “Shirt-sleeve weather,” the locals called it. It was so like all the other late September days in that part of Georgia it was only made memorable for Edward “Ned” Mason and his wife, Ranie, by the arrival of their newest son, Mack Mason.
Ned and Ranie had married young, and children had followed quickly and regularly, so even though Ned and Ranie were only 33 and 27, respectively, Mack was their seventh child and their fifth son. Waiting to meet the new baby boy were older brothers George, Jim, and Austin, and sisters Jane, Plum and Dicey. Mack would not be Ned and Ranie’s last child—he would himself become older brother to two brothers, Alonzo and Oliver, and two sisters, Janice and Ella. Ned Mason and Ranie Brown had been born as slaves on the plantations of Washington County, Georgia. They had been freed by the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Mack and his brothers and sisters were the first generation to be born free.
As a slave, Mack Mason’s father had been a farmhand and he continued to do that work for wages as a free man. But times were hard, and pay was poor—everyone had to do what they could to help the family. This meant education often took a backseat to financial need, and Mack only got through the fifth grade before he went to help the family, as had each of his brothers in their turn.
Mack Mason was born into a strange time in the lives of Georgia’s freed slaves. For almost twenty years, African Americans in Georgia had been enjoying relatively mild political and racial relations with their white neighbors—which is what they had hoped for when emancipation had come.
To be sure, this favorable climate did not spring from good will on the part of former slave owners and Confederates who had started the Civil War to maintain slavery. Indeed, as soon as possible ater the close of the Civil War, the former slave owners and Confederate veterans had regained control of the Georgia Legislature. They had immediately passed harsh laws intended to remove the black man’s recently granted right to vote and to physically and socially segregate black and white Georgians.
The U.S. Congress, though, controlled by Union men and in no mood to tolerate bad acts by former Confederates, brought out the hobnailed boots and kicked the white supremacists’ plans to pieces. A series of new Federal laws intended to suppress the white supremacists’ actions forced the former Confederates to backpedal. As a result, nearly all the recently passed racist laws in the eleven former Confederate states were repealed by 1868. In addition, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified with the intent of guaranteeing the former slaves and their descendants all the rights due the white majority.
The effect of the Congressional actions was strong and immediate. Between 1867 and 1872, sixty-nine African Americans served as delegates to the Georgia State Constitutional Convention or as members of the Georgia State Legislature. Jefferson Franklin Long, a tailor from Bibb County, sat in the U.S. Congress from December 1870 to March 1871. Former slaves and slave owners shopped in the same stores, used the same banks, and walked on the same sidewalks.
With all this forced change, Georgia was still a potentially dangerous place for the African American. A wrong word or even a glance at the wrong place or time could easily get a black man killed. Between 1880 and 1930, more than 450 men were lynched in Georgia, and prosecutions for those killings were rare.
But the years of Mack Mason’s early childhood were times when, if they were a little careful, former slave and their children could begin to feel, if not the full winds, surely the breezes of freedom. Mack, as a young boy going out to work, had little reason to suspect that, by his sixteenth birthday, events would create a very strong turn for the worse.
Having the Federal Government slap them down did not alter the segregationists’ goal one iota. They still tested the waters on a regular basis by passing segregationist laws where they thought they might get away with it. In early 1872, Georgia schools were segregated. Some cities and towns began mandating separate black and white cemeteries. But the real troubles began in 1883, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, while the Federal Government could govern discrimination by other governmental bodies, the Constitution gave it no power over discrimination by individual citizens.
Former slave states saw this as a signal to start trying to expand the envelope on segregation. New restrictive laws were passed in the different states and some survived. In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring railroads provide separate cars for blacks and whites. Determined to fight the law, a concerned group of prominent black, Creole, and white residents of New Orleans formed a Committee of Citizens with the stated purpose of attempting to repeal the law. The best thing, they decided, would be to create a case that would test the law in the courts. In 1892, one of the group—a mixed race man named Homer Plessy—bought a first-class ticket, boarded a “whites only” car, and found himself a seat. Mr. Plessy was immediately asked to move to the “blacks only” car, which he refused to do. He was arrested on the spot and the Committee of Citizens had their case.
The case, which was known as Plessy vs Ferguson, spent the next four years winding its way through the local and state courts. Finally, in 1896, it came before the United States Supreme Court. As the Court convened for oral arguments on April 13, 1896, there was little to suggest the ultimate outcome of Plessy vs Ferguson was going to be far worse for African Americans than anyone could have imagined.
Simply stated, the majority of the Supreme Court ruled there was nothing in the Constitution, including the new 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, that prohibited the forced separation of the black and white races in public facilities. The Constitution, according to the Court, required all citizens be protected equally, but if the separate facilities provided to African Americans were equal to those provided to whites, no inherent violation of the U.S. Constitution would occur.
As each of the governments of the former slave states immediately perceived, the Plessy decision essentially legitimized the state laws establishing racial segregation in the South. All the various states had to do to totally exclude their black citizens from public places was to claim separate and equal facilities had been provided for them. For the next sixty years, “Separate but Equal” would be the catchphrase white supremacists would use to repress and separate black people from the mainstream white society.
But in 1896, the average American—black or white—did not typically follow the workings of the Supreme Court, and few of them saw what was on the horizon. Oblivious to exactly what was coming, Mack Mason, went on with the process of shifting from boyhood to becoming a man.
Mack was a fully-grown young man out of his parent’s house and living on his own when he met and courted a pretty nineteen year-old named Sarah Shatteen Thompson, commonly called Sallie. His courtship was ultimately successful, and Mack and Sallie were married on December 15, 1902, in Washington County, Georgia.
Sallie Thompson had been born in June of 1883 in Washington County, Georgia, to parents Peter Thompson and Ann Shatteen. Sadly, Sallie’s mother died when she was only five years old. Sallie’s father had to work, so she went to live with her grandmother, Sallie Shatteen, for whom she was named. She was still living with her grandmother when she married Mack Mason.
By the time of their marriage, many of the harsh segregation laws the white supremacists had been pushing had been put in place. The collection of repressive laws that forced separation between whites and African Americans in nearly every element of life became known as “Jim Crow.” The name was taken from a character in a mid-1800s minstrel show in which white men would dress up in blackface and outlandish costumes and sing and dance to “colored” music. History does not record when or how the name became associated with the pattern of segregationist laws, but everyone soon knew what it meant.
However, what Jim Crow meant for black people was all bad. By 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states had passed new constitutions or amendments to existing constitutions that used a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, along with residency and record-keeping requirements, to effectively disenfranchise most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites. Suddenly, black men who had been voting for nearly 30 years were suddenly told they were no longer qualified to vote.
The deliberate and unapologetic nature of these acts is shown by a law passed in Oklahoma. Seeing their new anti-black laws were also causing thousands of poor whites to lose their voting rights, Oklahoma passed an incredibly cynical amendment to their new law stating anyone who had voted, or whose ancestor had voted, prior to 1866, would be exempt from the restrictive elements of the new law. Since only white men voted prior to 1866, this amendment made all white men exempt from the literacy test and the other new requirements.
In Washington, D.C., Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern-born President since the Civil War, had apparently decided to become the “Racist-in-Chief.” The Federal Government had been integrated pretty much since the Civil War. Wilson changed that by firing all black department heads, demoting several black military officers to noncommissioned officers, and, where black employees were not fired, segregating departments into black and white offices.
In the various states, all public facilities were suddenly made separate. From the iconic water fountains, to buses, street cars, restaurants, bathrooms, city and county parks, doctor’s offices, and on and on, henceforth, some were for blacks, some for whites—none were for both.
Blacks and whites could not marry, could not share hospital rooms, could not play baseball together, could not be in the same insane asylums, and could not be buried in the same cemeteries. The goal seemed to be to make the black people invisible to white society—and it seemed to be working. The progress made during the years since the Civil War had been turned on its head. Anyone violating one of these laws could easily end up in jail . . . or worse. This was the world in which Mack and Sallie Mason began their married lives.
Mack Mason was a hard-working man who did what was necessary to provide for his family. While growing up, his only training had been in farm labor, and early in his marriage he usually worked as a farmhand. Farm work often came and went with the season, requiring the family to sometimes move to follow the work. In the years after their marriage, Mack, Sallie, and the family moved to Louisville, Jefferson County, Georgia, where they lived for many years.
Mack worked as a stable hand on a farm for a while, and later worked for a sawmill in the same area. After the sawmill, Mack got a chance to farm for himself as a sharecropper. The farm was in Wadley, Jefferson County, Georgia, and he rented it by agreeing to share the profits of the crops he raised. It was during these years in Washington and Jefferson Counties that Mack and Sallie’s seven children were born: Jesse, John, Annie Lee, Maria, Eddie, Robert, and Melvin. Eddie—the progenitor of this line—would eventually honor his brother, Melvin, using his name as the base for his daughter’s name, Melvalean.
Sometime between Melvin Mason’s birth and April of 1930, Mack and Sallie moved the family to Savannah, Georgia, where Mack and Sallie lived out the remainder of their lives. Mack worked for some years in a fertilizer plant, and later got a job as a woodcutter in a pulpwood mill. It would be the job he finally retired from.
Sallie Thompson Mason, a dedicated wife, mother, and support for her husband, came down with cancer and succumbed to it in Savannah on March 21, 1938. She and Mack had been married for 35 years. Sallie was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery, Chatham County, Georgia. Mack lived on in Savannah for another 24 years. He never remarried. He retired in the early 1940s and lived with his daughter Annie Lee after that. Mack died in her house on September 18, 1962.
Mack had been born during the relatively brief period following the Civil War when it appeared African Americans in Georgia were going get at least most of the rights guaranteed them by the U.S. Constitution. He went on to live the bulk of his life under the heavy weight of the Jim Crow laws stole that promise away from them. But before he died, he got to see the beginnings of change: the rise of leaders like Martin Luther King and the passage of the first laws that would start the pendulum swinging back toward a greater freedom again.
Mack and Sallie’s fifth child, Eddie Mazo, is the direct ancestor of this family line. Eddie was born at a hard time for Sallie and the family. As a result, he spent most of his life being raised by willing relatives. During this period, he met an Army man named Mazo whom he came to greatly admire.
Born during the First World War, short-lived Prosperity, and the great Depression and Stock Market Crash, they started a family in the Jim Crow South, while hearing about Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, the New Deal, the Manhattan Project and feeling the impact of the Holocaust and World War II. As they aged in Postwar America, experiencing a second Prosperity, the Marshal Plan, President Eisenhower, Rosa Parks, and retiring around the time of the Korean and Cold Wars, John F. Kennedy and the Space Race. Our ancestors have persisted through god and bad times, succeeding and giving us our opportunity!