James W. Mason (1841-1874) was the son of Elisha Worthington, one of the wealthiest plantation owners in Arkansas. Worthington did not hide the fact that he had fathered Mason and a daughter, Martha, by one of his slaves. He allowed them to be educated.
Mason became the nation’s first black postmaster, serving the Sunnyside Post Office from 1867-1871. He was a state senator from 1868-1869, and then again from 1871-1872; but in early 1871 there was friction surrounding his appointment to county judge by U.S. Sen. Powell Clayton, a former Arkansas governor.
After the violence known as the Chicot County “race war” of 1871, Mason became the county sheriff in November 1872. He was afterward arrested for his alleged involvement in the upheaval, his popularity and political influence arousing suspicion that he might have been a key player in the events. He was tried, but the case eventually was dismissed.
Elisha Worthington died in 1873, leaving no will. Mason and his sister Martha went to court to claim part of their father’s inheritance. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the siblings’ favor.
Since Worthington had sent Martha to the free state of Ohio for her education, the court determined that the earlier master-to-slave relationship was dissolved. Even though Martha returned to Arkansas, a slave state, she was subsequently a free woman and able to inherit.
Mason never benefited from the ruling. He died in November 1874, cause of death unknown — four years before the case was settled.
— Jeanne Lewis