We are sad to report the passing on May 6 of Dr. Philip Mason, 94, founding director of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs in Detroit, Michigan, which since the 1960s has housed the historical records of the United Farm Workers, farm worker movement and Cesar Chavez’s personal papers.
Chavez was considering how to preserve the union’s historical papers in the late ‘60s. Major university archives in California either weren’t interested or were hostile. The University of California was controlled by a board of trustees appointed by Governor Ronald Reagan, a UFW opponent. A former Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy burglarized Chavez’s Delano office in the late ‘60s, stealing confidential files and historical materials and trying to sell them to government agencies and right-wing groups.
Then legendary United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther, an early farm worker champion, convinced Chavez to name the labor archives at Wayne State in Detroit as official depository for the UFW’s historical records and his own papers. Wayne State remains the largest union archive in the nation, governed by a board influenced by major unions, including the UAW that endowed it, helping fund construction of the Walter P. Reuther Library in 1975.
Phil Mason nurtured close relationships with many national unions and labor leaders whose papers he collected, including the UAW, American Federation of Labor, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the Industrial Workers of the World plus the Detroit NAACP and Rosa Parks. Many UFW veterans remember Dr. Mason’s frequent trips to the union’s La Paz headquarters at Keene, Calif. reclaiming, organizing and shipping voluminous files to Detroit, thus ensuring their preservation.
Dr. Mason was proud of his longtime friendship with Chavez. They would play handball together at La Paz. Phil Mason took a turn as a pallbearer during the march by tens of thousands of mourners to Chavez’s funeral services at Delano’s Forty Acres in 1993.
“Phil took great pride in the UFW and Cesar Chavez collections,” said UFW President Emeritus Arturo S. Rodriguez. “He worked tirelessly to ensure the integrity and security of the farm workers’ history.”
In addition to a long and distinguished career featuring many initiatives and archival innovations and producing countless published works, Dr. Mason, who earned B.A., masters and Ph.D. degrees in history, taught the subject for decades. He is survived by his wife, Marcia Mason, five children, nine grandchildren, six great-grandchildren as well as countless friends and colleagues, including from the farm worker movement.