Person

Mahala Ashley Dickerson

black and white portrait of young woman wearing a large necklace
Mahala Ashley Dickerson

David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Quick Facts

Mahala was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1912. She grew up in the American South and graduated from Tennessee's Fisk University in 1935.

She earned a law degree in 1945 from Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., one of the nation's most prestigious black universities.
Dickerson returned to Alabama, where she became the first black female lawyer in the state in 1948.

She spent the next six decades in the legal profession and made a name for herself representing the people who faced discrimination.

After spending three years practicing law in Alabama, she relocated to Indiana in 1951. There, she became only the second black woman admitted to the bar in that state.

A few years later, Dickerson took a vacation to Alaska where she grew enamored with the landscape and natural beauty. After a brief return to Indiana, Dickerson decided to make the move north.

Mahala filed a claim for a 160-acre homestead in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley near Wasilla in 1958. Dickerson was Alaska's first female black Homesteader.

A few months later, Dickerson passed the Alaska Bar exam and became the first black lawyer in Alaska.

Dickerson faced discrimination in Alaska as she had elsewhere. She nevertheless stayed and eventually opened law offices in Wasilla and Anchorage.

She was known for her inspired defense of her clients.

"My zeal was often resented by opposing counsel. I had no fear of the other attorney and often incurred his wrath," Dickerson once said.
In one of her most notable trials. Dickerson won a precedent-setting case for female faculty members at the University of Alaska. The case illustrated that females received lower wages than their male counterparts.

In addition, she received many legal honors throughout her career. She served as president of the National Association of Women Lawyers from 1983-84. In 1985 was awarded the Zeta Phi Beta Award for distinguished service in the field of law.

In 1995, Dickerson received the Margaret Brent Award from the American Bar Association, an honor recognizing the most outstanding American female lawyers. 

Dickerson published an autobiography, Delayed Justice for Sale in 1998.

Her accomplishments stand in Alaska's history, but also the legal profession, and civil rights and women's activism.

Further Reading on Mahala Ashley Dickerson

Kenneth W. Mack, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Mahala Ashley Dickerson, Delayed Justice for Sale. Anchorage, AK:Al-Acres, 1998.

Jennifer Bazeley, "An Interview with M. Ashley Dickerson." Alaska Bar Rag. July/August/September, 1982.

Julia O'Malley, Pioneer Alaska Lawyer Dickerson Dies at 94." Anchorage Daily News. February 21, 2007.

Homestead National Historical Park

Last updated: August 7, 2021