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 kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

Una Richardson from her Deering High School 1971 yearbook.

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: kbouchard@pressherald.com

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