When I think of the many people, of all ages, who became lost or troubled where I grew up in Bennettsville, South Carolina, I also think of the pool of community co-parents and elders who were always there to help them and guide them in the right direction. Hilda Mason, teacher, civil rights activist and city council member, was just such a leader here in Washington, D.C. In her later years, she would introduce herself as everyone’s “grandmother” — because that’s what she became. She died on December 16, 2007, and with her passing we lost a great soul.
Born in a split log cabin in 1916 in rural Campbell County, Virginia, Hilda Mason strove from an early age to overcome her humble beginnings. She first became a teacher of “colored” students in racially segregated Altavista, Virginia, in the 1930s and ‘40s. After moving to the District of Columbia, she taught in the public schools which, through the 1950s, also were segregated. Determined to impress upon her students high academic standards, Hilda compensated for the lack of resources in her classroom by purchasing special supplies and equipment and supporting field trips out of her own pocket.
In 1957, Hilda met Charles Noble “Charlie” Mason, Jr., a wealthy, White Mayflower descendant, at All Souls Unitarian Church, which was then and remains a center of progressive activism in Washington. In between picketing the D.C. Transit Company to demand an end to its racist hiring practices and protesting the Whites-only membership policy of the YMCA, Hilda and Charlie engaged in a long courtship and married in 1965. I know something about how struggling for social justice can create interesting couples. Hilda and Charlie’s coming together was not only a love match but also a lifelong partnership in a continuing struggle to help the most vulnerable in our society.
Hilda’s career as an educator grew and expanded. She became a staff member at the LaSalle Laboratory School and the progressive Adams Morgan Community School Project. Outside the classroom she helped organize a school chapter of the Washington Teachers Union and fought for equal treatment for Black students and teachers. In the mid-1960s, she organized a rent subsidy project and summer enrichment program for children in the neighborhood around All Soul’s Church.
In 1971, Hilda was elected to the D.C. Board of Education where she fought for better access to early childhood education for needy children, reduced class sizes and parity of resources for schools in low-income neighborhoods with prosperous ones. During this time, she became an ally of Council Member Julius Hobson, a leader of the DC Statehood Party. Like so many residents of Washington, D.C., Hilda was outraged that American citizens in the nation’s capital did not have full voting representation in the United States Congress so she pushed for the District to become the 51st state. When Julius Hobson died in 1977, she was elected to his at-large seat on the City Council and was reelected in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994.
She lost her bid for a sixth Council term in 1998 but she didn’t retire from helping people. Hilda and Charlie continued their long-time practice of making “loans” to young people to help with college costs and to families struggling to buy food or pay utility bills. The couple was instrumental in establishing the University of the District of Columbia School of Law and were great patrons of the institution. They contributed large sums to provide scholarships for students attending the school. In 2004, the Board of Trustees of the school honored them by naming its library the Charles N. and Hilda H. M. Mason Law Library. Her heart was always open to those in need, and Hilda Mason was always there for the children. She attended as many public school graduations as she could and encouraged young people from foster homes and group homes to call her “grandma” so they felt someone loved them and was interested in their welfare.
Hilda Mason did these things because they were the right things to do. She did them because if there was an injustice, she felt compelled to correct it. She did them because she really did see herself as the District’s Grandmother. I celebrate her life and the lives of so many other elders and grandmothers who continue to help troubled young people in our communities.