James Washington “J.W.” Mask died at the age of 96 Wednesday at Sandhills Regional Medical Center. A memorial service will be held in his honor Saturday at 1 p.m. at Waymon Chapel Faith Center, 415 Osborne Road in Hamlet.
A former principal, school administrator and school board member in Richmond County, Mask left a mark as a man who was dedicated to the betterment of others, said J.C. Watkins.
Perhaps even more than in education, his efforts to promote civil rights exemplified this commitment.
“He was almost Mr. Civil Rights,” Watkins said. Mask was instrumental in forming the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the county.
He would go on to hold both local and state office with the civil rights organization.
Mask was already the principal of Monroe Avenue High School when Watkins became the principal of Leak Street High School in the early 1940’s, and the two often traveled together to professional associations and functions.
Watkins recalled the story Mask told of riding from Washington, D.C. to Hamlet on the train, and reaching the point in Virginia where non-whites had to get out of the train and walk to the segregated area.
“He had to do that one night when it was raining,” Watkins recalled. “And he said that he told himself, ‘This isn’t right - I shouldn’t have to do this. When I get home I’m going to do everything I can to end this.’ I think that was the real turning point in his thinking on civil rights.”
Watkins also remembers Mask as an eloquent speaker.
“When he had something to say, it wasn’t just words,” Watkins remembered. “He had a way of making you understand what he was saying, and he said it in a precise manner.”
Richmond County Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robert Beck said he first came to know Mask when Beck was a young teacher and Mask was an administrator with the school system.
“I knew him and always had great respect for him,” Beck said.
Later, when Beck became an administrator, Mask served as a school board member.
“He was also well-respected as a school board member,” Beck recalled. “I think he will be sorely missed as a community leader in educational circles.”
Mask was born in Beaufort County in 1913, but graduated from high school in Hamlet. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Augustine College, a master’s degree from North Carolina A&T and also studied at Atlanta University, Columbia University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Staff Writer Philip D. Brown can be reached at (910) 997-3111 ext. 32, or by e-mail at email@example.com.