A day to reflect on kindness and a final touch on the holiday season, that’s what the Martin Luther King Jr. Day is. We can remember struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, including the changes human endeavor wrought in Platte County. Or we are also free to catch our breath, pause, and recover a bit from the tensions and emotions the Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day holiday run brings.
Kind people are more free in their daily lives than those who feel compelled to hate or resent based on faith, skin color or sexual orientation. History certainly remembers kind and tolerant people more favorably. R. F. Mason, a Platte County pioneer merchant, is one example.
Granted, our King holiday on Monday would have been far more jolly had the Kansas City Chiefs pulled out a win on Sunday and advanced to the Super Bowl. Our tribe suffered another crushing disappointment in the NFL’s postseason. But maybe the King holiday will pull our inner compass back to deeper things. Perhaps too, we can take a few moments this week to remember that people of all races from one community cheering for the same team is, in historical context, progress.
I always remember R.F. Mason on the King holiday. He was chronicled briefly in W.M. Paxton’s invaluable history book, Annals of Platte County.
Mason was one of Platte County’s earliest settlers in 1839. Born in Pennsylvania, he married and became a merchant in Farley. Many of his customers would have owned slaves and worked them in the lucrative hemp trade. Hemp was profitable due to good soil, a ready shipping means on the Missouri River and slave labor.
But remember, too, the hatred and violence along the Missouri-Kansas border in the decade before the Civil War. The tension over whether frontier Kansas was to be a slave state, and slavery itself, could cost a person friendships or business, or in the worst case, their life. Amid this, Mr. Mason conducted business. Remember also, that some African-American residents of Platte and Clay counties were free as their white neighbors, legally, though not free from social prejudice.
Paxton noted a brutal killing in 1858 followed by thoughtful kindness that begat an uplifted life.
“David Smith, colored, was basely murdered at his house, on the Missouri, below Leavenworth, by a gang of outlaws,” Paxton wrote. “A free negro, he was industrious and honest, and owned a good farm. He left a son, Henry C. Smith, born in Independence, Mo., Sept. 5, 1845. Our fellow citizen, R.F. Mason, became his guardian and gave him a good education. He became a protégé of Senator Bruce (colored) of Mississippi, and he was employed in the Treasury Department at Washington. He held the office of state superintendent of schools in Mississippi. He is a rising man among the negroes of the south and west.”
I like those words Paxton chose for Mason, “our fellow citizen.” How can we today not also appreciate Mason for guiding the life of a heartbroken 13-year-old boy to successful manhood? And he did so at a time when many Platte County residents were intolerant of kindness toward the black race. It was a time when human beings were sold as slaves on the courthouse steps.
I wish I knew more about Henry C. Smith. My internet searches have hit dead ends.
There is a bit more about R.F. Mason though that is worthy of thought in a King Holiday week. He moved to Platte City in 1864, during the Civil War, and entered into business as a merchant with a partner. Mason had seven children and many also became active in Platte City business. His wife, Mrs. Dorcas Mason, died in 1893. Paxton wrote about R.F. Mason at the time of his wife’s death:
“Kind hearted and generous to all, his benevolence was shown to a youth, named Jervis Johnson, then poor and friendless. But Johnson became wealthy, and remembering his old benefactor, deeded him lands worth $18,000. This municifent gift lifted the Mason family to ease and independence… he is still living in Platte City, with all his children near him, and is revered by all.”
What kind of mark do we want to make on history? How will we affect our community? Those are good questions to ask during the King Holiday week.
R.F. Mason simply took action based on his beliefs of kindness and tolerance. That’s what the King holiday stands for, too.