Una Richardson stood alone onstage in the Deering High School auditorium, words on paper trembling in her hand.
It was May 4, 1971, and Una had asked to address her senior classmates. They were about to graduate, and they planned to hold their prom at the brand-new, air-conditioned Elks club on Outer Congress Street. The national Elks organization didn’t allow black members. That didn’t sit well with Una, one of two black students in a class of 427.
She had to speak out. She had to be brave.
“I was so nervous, ” she recalled recently. “I had never done anything like that before. I felt like I had nobody at Deering, save for a few friends and one teacher who supported me.”
Her friends would join her and other NAACP members a month later in a prom-night picket line, outside the Elks club. A Portland Press Herald editorial at the time called the picketing “excessive” and lauded school officials for staying out of the student dispute.
Ultimately, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling would force the national Elks organization to change its membership rules.
Una’s protest 33 years ago takes on special poignancy as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954 ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, which outlawed segregated schools.
Una’s dissent came during a protracted and uncommon racial controversy in Maine that pushed the state to the front of the national civil-rights struggle. The conflict focused on the Portland City Council’s refusal to grant a liquor license to the Elks club because its whites-only membership rule violated the state’s fledgling antidiscrimination law.
The lengthy court battle that followed, and Una Richardson’s noteworthy role, have drawn little attention since the early 1970s, despite Maine’s pivotal place in the fight against institutional racism.
Taking a stand
Today her name is Una George. She’s 52 and lives in Nashville, Tenn., with her husband, Stephen. She laughs when she talks about the prom protest now, as if hauling out memories long tucked away is both enjoyable and discomforting. She admits that she left high school with a bitter taste in her mouth. She moved on to other challenges and accomplishments.
But on that memorable Tuesday in 1971, Una Richardson’s words fell on deaf ears. An active member of the local NAACP, she believed it was wrong to hold the prom where her father couldn’t be a member. Her family was active in Portland politics. One of her uncles, Clifford “Kippy” Richardson, served on the City Council from 1976 to 1980. She knew about the Elks club controversy at City Hall.
In November 1970, the council had refused to grant a liquor license to the Elks based on a 1969 Maine law that withheld state licenses from organizations that practiced racial discrimination. The State Liquor Commission upheld the council’s decision. It was a serious blow because the club depended on bar sales to pay for its new building.
By January 1971, the Elks had taken the case to court. That same month, a Superior Court justice ruled that the liquor commission had overstepped its bounds by refusing to renew liquor licenses for 12 other Elks clubs throughout Maine. Meanwhile, Massachusetts and New Hampshire started refusing to give liquor licenses to whites-only clubs as well.
In March 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from a Moose lodge in Pennsylvania whose whites-only policy had been ruled illegal by a three-judge federal court. But it would be a year before the nation’s highest court decided that case.
In this highly charged atmosphere, Una Richardson took the stage at Deering High School. The student newspaper, Ramblings, documented her speech. If the dance were held at the Elks club, she told the senior class, she would not, in good conscience, be able to attend.
She called for “respect for all people.” She said holding the prom at the Elks club “is undemocratic, but more important, it is immoral.” The 240 students in the audience “were impressed and applauded her warmly.”
When it came time to vote, however, her classmates sided with the class president. According to the Ramblings article, he noted the benefits of having the prom in a modern hall instead of what is today the Eastland Park Hotel. He said he knew several Elks members personally, and they weren’t racist. Regardless of the Elks’ membership rules, he said, blacks would be allowed to attend the prom.
In the end, the class voted 176-64 to hold the prom at the Elks club. It was supposed to be a secret ballot, but the students were asked to stand up for a head count instead. Some students at the time wondered if peer pressure influenced the public vote. Una’s head was spinning as she left the auditorium.
“I was disappointed in the faculty and I was disappointed in my class, ” she said in a recent telephone interview. “It was like they didn’t care. They listened politely and said, `OK, you’re done, that’s it.’ It would have been nice if someone would have come up to me afterward and said, `Wow, I didn’t know blacks couldn’t join the Elks club. That’s not right. I’m not going to the prom, either.’ I would have felt a little better.”
She wasn’t the only disappointed Deering student. Michael Messerschmidt was an editor of the student newspaper and wrote the account of the senior class assembly.
“I was really upset, ” said Messerschmidt, now a lawyer with the Portland firm of Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau, Pachios and Haley. “I agreed with Una. A lot of us did. But obviously not enough. I remember being surprised at how lopsided the vote was. I remember being very disappointed in my classmates.”
Messerschmidt, whose clients include the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, believes the students’ vote was a reflection of their parents and Portland at that time. Messerschmidt’s upbringing and understanding of oppression was unusual because both of his parents were Nazi concentration camp survivors. He figures some of his classmates had parents who were members of the Elks club.
“I don’t think the kids were racist. I don’t think they were trying to be malicious, ” Messerschmidt said. “I do think they were insensitive and naive. I think the vote shows a tremendous insensitivity. They didn’t appreciate how difficult it would be for Una to attend the prom in a place that otherwise wouldn’t allow a black person to be a member.”
Una didn’t attend the June 11 prom. Instead, she joined the NAACP-organized protest outside the Elks club that Friday evening, even though one teacher tried to talk her out of it. The 50 or so picketers included members of a local peace group and several Deering students, the Press Herald reported at the time. The protesters greeted prom-goers and club members with shouts of “racist, ” “oinker” and “shame.”
Three days later, the Portland Elks voted 182-8 to drop the whites-only rule from the local charter, but the club remained bound by the rules of the 105-year-old national organization.
Supreme Court ruling
A break in battle came in June 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Pennsylvania case, ruling that states have a right to set their own liquor laws. The following December, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided against the state’s 15 Elks lodges and upheld the liquor commission’s application of Maine’s antidiscrimination law.
The Maine clubs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in April 1973, the justices decided to stick by their ruling on the Pennsylvania case. A month later, the national Moose organization removed racial references from its constitution and bylaws. In July 1973, the national Elks group did the same, after fighting the change for two years.
The club’s leader at the time told a reporter at the Chicago convention that changing social attitudes and recent court action in Maine influenced the 2,186-773 vote. In truth, other states were talking about following Maine’s lead and some had already revoked the club’s tax-exempt status.
The Elks continued to stir racial controversy as late as 1989, when some clubs were charged with making it nearly impossible for black men to become members. In 1995, the national group accepted women as members.
The Elks did not respond to a request for an interview.
Times have changed. It’s unlikely that a Deering student would experience Una’s frustration today, largely because legislation has greatly reduced opportunities for institutional discrimination. Given similar circumstances, the Press Herald probably would publish a much different editorial than it did back then.
“Of course we wouldn’t have the same editorial opinion today, ” said John W. Porter, the newspaper’s editorial page editor. “The newspaper is a voice within the community. The editorial pages strive to be a leader in the community and a reflection of community values. The trick in this job is to know when to lead and when to reflect the community. In hindsight, they (the editorial pages at the time) should have been in full leadership mode.”
Deering High today
Deering’s minority population has grown significantly in the last decade. The high school had a handful of black students when Una Richardson was a senior. Now about 10 percent of its 1,340 students are black, Hispanic or Asian.
“Things have changed so much, it’s hard to imagine what I would do in that same position, ” said Brenda Roy, who has been Deering’s principal for eight years. “Students are much more tolerant and respectful. Society in general is much more accepting of people’s differences.”
Roy points to Deering’s handling of gay-student issues to show how far the high school has come. She says same-sex couples have attended Deering proms for several years. The high school has a Rainbow Alliance for lesbian, gay, straight, transgender or questioning youth.
Anthony LaVopa, president of Deering’s class of 2004, says there are several openly gay students in his class and he expects to see many of them at the senior prom Saturday at the Eastland Park Hotel. He was surprised to learn about Una Richardson’s experience and Portland’s role in the civil rights movement – neither were discussed in his history classes.
He believes Deering students would respond much differently today.
“I think if that type of thing comes up again, you’d see the overwhelming majority of the class support the student on whatever issue, ” LaVopa said.
Hope for today
Michael Messerschmidt was valedictorian of the class of 1971. He also was good friends with the senior class president, Kevin Geary. Geary, who lives in Texas, didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Messerschmidt says he didn’t understand Geary’s push to hold the prom at the Elks club, but it didn’t spoil their friendship. He says they discussed it a few times afterward and he believes his friend regretted the outcome of the student vote.
“It’s preposterous when you think about it now, ” said Messerschmidt, who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “You’d like to think it wouldn’t happen again. You’d like to think it would come out differently. But really, it’s not that long ago that we would do something as insensitive as this.”
Like Messerschmidt, Una George hopes Deering has changed for the better. She, too, has come a long way. After spending a few years in the Air Force, she returned to Portland, married, divorced, raised a daughter and worked as a secretary at City Hall for 23 years.
She moved to Georgia in 2000 when she remarried. Last year the couple moved to Nashville, where she works in executive sales and the couple has a prayer ministry.
She says she rarely thinks about the prom protest and told her husband the whole story only after being asked to recount the events. She admits that the experience tainted her final days of high school, but she sees no connection between the student vote and the fact that she has never attended a class reunion.
“I’m not one to hold a grudge, ” she said. “I was on to the next thing. There’s always causes for black people and I was active in the NAACP.”
She pauses when she is compared to Rosa Parks. It’s an uncomfortable alignment, even when qualified as Maine’s version of the civil rights heroine.
“That’s not me, ” she said. “I was just taking a stand for civil rights. In fact, I shun the limelight. But I was pretty brave that day.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]