Originally created 04/11/98

Professor preserves black Atlanta's heritage



ATLANTA -- To the Morehouse College freshmen gathered recently in a classroom in Brawley Hall, history might be a matter of a B or C. Professor Herman "Skip" Mason Jr. wants the students to see history as a matter of life or death.

The topic is the age of exploration. "What did Christopher Columbus do to ensure his posterity and his legacy?" asks the dapper Mr. Mason, a youthful 35-year-old who, if one disregards the silk suit and Italian shoes, appears not much older than his students. The class offers several answers: Columbus buddied up to the queen? He fathered many children?

Wrong, says Mr. Mason. "He wrote it down. He recorded it. He documented it. This is the difference between civilizations that prosper and those that remain stagnant." The adventurous West Africans, says Mr. Mason, may have sailed to the coast of the New World long before the Europeans. But, he says, they failed to write about it.

Mr. Mason is doing his part to promote the cultural survival of at least one civilization: the rich tradition that is black Atlanta. Through his consulting company, Digging It Up, and his books of photographs, including his latest, "Black Atlanta in the Roaring Twenties," Mr. Mason has become Mr. History for black Atlanta.

"He's carved out a niche for himself as the most visible and, in many respects, the most productive proprietor of African-American history in Atlanta," says Rick Beard, executive director of the Atlanta History Center.

One example: Historical markers on Auburn Avenue and in the Atlanta University complex, which Mr. Mason's company researched and produced, have introduced many Atlantans to undertaker David T. Howard and civic leader John Wesley Dobbs.

He can be just as graphic in the classroom.

His students are required to trace their own lineage back to the days of slavery and to identify those who once held their ancestors as chattel.

"In your family there probably is a woman who has been raped," Mr. Mason tells his students. "Someone in your family has probably had a noose placed around their neck."

This is in-your-face history. "I found it boring up until now," says student Rashaun Jackson, who aims to become a computer engineer. Leonard Moody agrees. Mr. Mason "relates it to modern events," he says.

With the goal of reaching everyone, not just his students, Mr. Mason has made himself a one-man history industry. When he's not teaching at Morehouse, he's doing research for clients such as the Savannah Civil Rights Museum and the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta.

He has several picture books in the works, including one on Atlanta's black entertainers, and another on the world of black sports. And he's writing a screenplay about the great Atlanta boxer Theodore "Tiger" Flowers.