August 26, 2013

Maine civil rights figure recalls prom protest

From the archives: in a Portland Press Herald story from May 24, 2004, former Deering High School student Una Richardson recalls her 1971 protest against the Elks club and her classmates' decision to hold their prom there.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

Una Richardson stood alone onstage in the Deering High School auditorium, words on paper trembling in her hand.

click image to enlarge

Una Richardson from her Deering High School 1971 yearbook.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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