By K. Levek
Hilda Mason, a teacher, civil rights activist and city council member, were just a few triumphs of a lady who left a rich legacy in the District. With her passing in December 2007 it is fitting that she is honored during Women’s History Month. In later years of her life she would refer to herself as everyone’s as “grandmother” — because that’s what she became.
A veteran of the civil rights movement, Mason was born in a split log cabin in 1916 in Altavista, Virginia. She attended Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg and St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville becoming a teacher in Altavista, before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1945.
After her move to D.C. she became a public school teacher in the then-segregated school system. Nearly ten years later she would meet her future husband, Charles Noble “Charlie” Mason, Jr., a white Boston native Mayflower descendent. The two met at the All Souls Unitarian Church, a center for activism during that time and later married in 1965. They would become one of the city’s most politically active couples.
Mason and her husband became heavily involved with progressive issues of their day. As her educational career grew she began working for various schools around the city. She helped form a chapter of the Washington Teachers Union and began fighting for equal treatment for Black students and teachers and in 1971 was elected to the D.C. Board of Education, representing Ward 4. There she fought for early childhood education, better resources for low-income areas and smaller class sizes.
Soon Hilda began taking on issues of the District’s city council. Ahead of her time, she began fighting for D.C. Statehood, outraged that the nations capital didn’t have full voting representation in Congress.
Befriending then At-Large Councilmember Julius Hobson, Hilda was appointed to take over his seat after his passing in 1977. She went on to serve on the council in the At-Large role until 1997, becoming the longest serving council member. She was also a member of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors.
Over the years she became known as “Grandmother” to many Washingtonians for her compassion for education for youth. In the 1970s she crafted legislation for the creation of the University of the District of Columbia and she and her husband Charlie were ever present at the schools activities. Her husband Charlie, having attended Howard University School of Law, was instrumental in helping her set up UDC’s law school in the 1980s and the school was named after the first chairman of the District’s city council, David A. Clarke. In 2004 the Board of Trustees named the law library Charles N. and Hilda N.M. Mason, in their honor. She and her husband helped set up scholarship funds for the school and gave over $4Million dollars in scholarship money to the school throughout her life. Today the school has graduated many District residents, national and international students. The school also has also added a community college.
As the years progressed many of her city council colleagues began calling for her to step down. Unrelenting she went on to win another term against former mayor Marion Barry who ran against her in 1990 after serving his prison sentence. In 1997 she stepped down as chairman of the education committee and lost a reelection bid at the age of 82.
A teacher, counselor and administrator in the D.C. public school system for 19 years, Hilda M. Mason lived a full live in the District. Setting legislation to create UDC, championing equality for black teacher and various civil rights issues of the time. Her legacy is rich and full of the things one, woman born in split log cabin, can do with a passion to serve and a heart full of desire.