Silverman: Vivian, tell me about your childhood and growing up in
Auburn, New York.
Mason: Oh, I don't know hardly where to start. You know, going
back over the years, things come to mind that you thought you had
forgotten and just at that moment I was thinking of a cemetery that
was near where we lived. We used to go over there on Sundays and walk
through the place, read the headstones, and think it was a great adventure
because there were some parts of the cemetery that were very old and
we weren't supposed to go there. But, when we saw that the gatekeeper
had vanished, we were sure to get into the oldest parts because it
seemed impossible that people had lived in 1784, 1800, 1900, and all
those years that now seem like a dream. You asked about my childhood
and I suppose I ought to start from my parents. My mother was born
in Aurora, New York. She was the daughter of a man who was a boat
builder and her mother was a cook in one of the most famous girls'
schools of that time, Wells College. By the way, you know that Sissy
Farenheit is the president of Wells College now, right? She is a great
advocate of women's right. The picture that I get of my early childhood
goes back to my mother's life in her home. But, my father was from
Georgia. He used to tell us he was from a place called Peachtree,
Georgia. He left there soon after his mother died and wandered to
the north. He had sort of a specific idea in mind-he wanted an education.
He walked and rode and walked and rode from Peachtree, Georgia to
New York state. A very kind-hearted man met him on a street in Elmira,
New York and inquired about whom he was, as he hadn't seen this young
person before, and where he was going. My father, George Carter, told
the man that he wanted to go to school and he had come from the south.
The man was an extraordinary character and a minister. He and his
wife took my father in and he did household chores and they sent him
to school. People still do that today; but, in those days it was a
phenomenon because this was a little black boy who had no parents
and he knew very little about the area, which he had decided to live.
But, he found people who were caring
people and that made the difference in his life. I often wonder what
would have happened to him if this minister hadn't stopped him and
made a friendly inquiry that resulted in his becoming, for all intents
and purposes, his foster father. He went to school there, finished
the highest grade he could took some subjects at Elmira Seminar, and
he found he was very religious in nature. It all resulted in his going
to the black church in the community and finally he was accepted as
a preacher and his career began. In those days, they didn't have the
strenuous qualifications that they have now and, even so, they don't
have qualifications that keep a great many people out. The theory
is that the spirit moves you, so God will give you strength and give
you confidence, ability, and insight and I sometimes think perhaps
that's really what religion ought to be about. We sometimes spend
too much of our time in the technical and historical facts of religious
beliefs, religious conversion, and religion itself. Perhaps, we ought
to lean more to the person who has an inward call to preach or many
of the things the church is supposed to do. Anyhow, he came to Auburn,
New York and my mother had left Aurora. Her family had moved to Auburn
and they met each other through the church and were eventually married.
Out of the marriage, there were eight children. I was the sixth. My
sister, Anita, is in Mount Vernon and my brother, Reginald, who lives
in the family home, never left Auburn as it had a great fascination
and pull for him, somehow or another. Things weren't so terribly bright
in Auburn; but, for him, it had a kind of hold on him. I think the
thing I remember most vividly is that we were poor people. I knew
at a very early age that my father didn't have a large income and
we had to struggle for everything that we had. But, I do remember
that we were happy. There were a lot of things that happened in the
family that come back to me with almost overwhelming force and sentiment.
For an example, on Sundays, we always had ice cream. My father would
get up in the morning, perhaps about 5:00. and mix the custard, freeze
the ice cream, and pack it so it would ripen. My mother made cakes
the day before and, on Sundays, that was part of the feast, with this
homemade ice cream. They never make ice cream like that now! I can
taste the vanilla in it now - real vanilla. Then we would have the
regular dinner. It was a feast in those days and I guess it's still
a feast. We'd have a couple of kinds of meats (roast beef, chicken
- we always had chicken!), mashed potatoes, green vegetables, and
then some kind of salad. We had dandelion salad in the summer, where
you cook the dandelion leaves. We picked other things from the streams
that were near Auburn. My brothers would go out and pick watercress.
We'd wash it and tie it in bundles and
sell it on Saturdays to homes where the wealthy people lived. When
I think of it now, we did all that work and effort for l5 cents! Yet,
it was a lot of money because we could sell thirty or forty bunches
on Saturday and that gave us all some amount of spending money. I
guess it was the beginning of an understanding of what the work effort
did. You could buy a freezer full of ice cream for 15 cents then.
Anyway, these things come back to me and I think of them- the Sunday
School services and the church services. My mother was the organist
in Auburn, as well as the other places we lived. We had this religious
training. When we had breakfast, we had a prayer, not only grace,
but my father read from the Bible. I'd read one morning, my brother
would read another and he always closed the morning worship service
at home with an admonition. I remember most vividly and it strikes
me now with impenetrable force that " a good name is better to be
chosen than great riches." He would repeat that to us and I guess
we understood what he meant. As we became a little older and more
aware of the fact that we had no money, but that we had a good name,
people would rally to us for various kinds of causes and made us think
that there was some truth in that admonition.
Silverman: Money is a relative thing, how much money you have in
relation to the people you are with. Actually, relatively speaking,
how poor were you when compared to the people with whom you were associated?
Mason: Well, we were poor, in terms of the government's measures
and standards of what poverty is. We didn't have the money for many
things we wanted to have; but, we weren't any different than the other
people with whom we know and associated. Poverty was no barrier to
what we wanted to do. It was just a condition of life that you were
in and you had to work yourself out of it. We never felt that the
"world owes me a living and it better give it to me!" We never had
that feeling that we couldn't rise. We knew there were obstacles,
very vivid obstacles; but, they weren't strong enough to destroy in
us the feelings that we had to get there and we were going to get
there and that nothing was going to stop us!
Silverman: Why is it that you had that feeling of hope and the real
sense that you would rise above the poor beginning? In many families,
that was quite different from the history of most black people of the
Mason: No, it isn't, strangely enough, because black people as
a whole have that same indomitable courage. The fact that they did
rise is proof of it. They formed organizations and maintained newspapers.
They fought very hard to go to school and when I say fought, I mean
they fought the twin enemies of poverty and lack of general encouragement
from the white community. There
was no group of white people that said they must see that the blacks
are educated. If they were educated, fine - they would do anything
they could, most of them, to help. But, there was no push from the
community itself to say that you must go to college. This pertained
to poor white people, too. This was the only way they had to make
it. Part of this came from my parents because my father carried in
him the seeds of wanting a very high-level kind of life.
Silverman: Where did he get that from?
Mason: It was born in him, it had to be. He lived with those people
in Elmira. I wish I knew the names of these people; they should be
remembered. I'd like to find out about these wonderful, fine people
who made it possible for him to have a different life. Imagine the
thousands of people who didn't have that opportunity and don't have
it today. Getting on to that, there were many things, I think, that
were bubbling over and coming to recognition in the days that my mother
and father were prominent in the struggle. They thought that they
consciously had to manifest a very deep concern for the conditions
of black people. This was in them and they did what they could. My
father knew Frederick Douglass when he was an old, old man. He used
to say that one of the things he wanted to do in his life was to see
Frederick Douglass. He didn't hope to talk to him; he just hoped to
look at the man.
Silverman: When did Frederick Douglass die? Wasn't it during the
Mason: No, no - it was before that. I don't know exactly; but
it was in the twentieth century.
Silverman: Roosevelt came into power in 1901. You told of hearing
Booker T. Washington, who died in 1950.
Mason: Oh, is that when? I read his boo, Up From Slavery, and
there was a time when I could quote all the passages from that book.
Silverman: It had tremendous influence?
Mason: Oh, it had tremendous influence, especially when he said
that he had never heard of a former slave who said he was happy in
slavery and wanted to be back there. Did I ever tell you of the man
who taught in school, teaching American History? This was in high
school and I was a lover of American History because I thought it
was a tale of adventure that affected so many thousands of people
and that they did so many unexpected, brave things that kept us saying
to ourselves, "Well, you must do that. You see, people have done it,
so it can be done again!" Frederick Douglass, of course, was a
great example, along with Harriet Tubman and all the other blacks
who fought against slavery in an era where to fight against slavery
was to encounter the most terrible danger to your own life that could
be, as well as the lives of others. This teacher I had made the history
very interesting, alive, and vibrant. We were studying the Civil War,
slavery, and Reconstruction, when in one of the lessons, he was discussing
slaves, emancipation, and the claim that slaves weren't unhappy in
their state. I remember he quoted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle
Tom's Cabin and when he said that the slaves were happy, I became
infuriated because I knew that it wasn't true. I read it in Booker
T. Washington's book and I had heard my father tell what his mother
told him about slavery.
Silverman: Had she been a slave?
Mason: Yes - she had been a slave and her people had been slaves.
She told my father and my father treasured the information that his
mother had given him. I knew the slaves were unhappy and rebellious.
They were tormented by their state of being. And, when he said that
they were happy, something just burned in me. So, I raised my hand
and asked if I could speak. I said, "That is not true!" I guess it
was very bold; I don't know whether or not students would say that
to a teacher today. Today they would say it! That is the truth! Anyhow,
I told him it wasn't true and I quoted from Up From Slavery and also
speeches that Booker T. Washington had made. He had met hundreds and
hundreds of slaves, ex-slaves rather, and he never found one who wanted
to go back into slavery or who had been happy in slavery. How could
people be happy in slavery when their freedom was taken from them?
They were suppressed; they weren't able to have personality, character,
or identity at all. How can people be happy under those circumstances?
So, I said that it isn't true and the class sat up in consternation,
some of whom may have been listening in disinterest as many do when
talking about slavery. By the way, I think of (Alex) Haley's Roots
and how he revealed what really happened in slavery. in so many different
aspects. You could write twenty books out of his One book. It amazed
me that American people have been so bereft of sensitivity and knowledge
of slavery. It all came to life with that moving picture, when it
should have been an old tale that was told. Many Americans don't know
Silverman: But, it was told in two ways - one was the way of the
blacks, which was the truth, and then the other way.
Mason: Anyhow, he was an intelligent teacher because he told me
to bring my book to school the next day and we spent the whole history
session on slavery. I had marked passages in the book and had brought
some things that had been written on Frederick Douglass and pamphlets
come from the slave era that my father had cherished and saved. We
had a whole discussion on that subject. I believe that the young people
were enlightened and I think that one of the feelings they expressed
was a kind of disbelief that this had really happened. That, I think,
is typical of our own country in this respect. Many people don't believe
that it actually happened or that it was grossly exaggerated.
Silverman: People don't believe that the concentration camps and
Mason: Many still don't believe that today! That's why we musn't
let people forget. We must remind ourselves that this is what man
can come to and use it as a shield and a guard for us so we see these
misgivings that come to us and tead them for what they are because
catastrophes can happen. Men are still savages under certain kinds
of pressures. Thus, we must never forget the atrocities of the past,
in order that we may not repeat it in the future. This is one of those
things, I suppose, that motivates blacks to have Emancipation Day
and Black History Seminars so that we won't forget the past and recognize
what came out of it.
Silverman: What about your mother's people?
Mason: They were free people who lived in Aurora, New York.
Silverman: How did they happen to come there? Do you know?
Mason: That I don't know; but, many years ago, during the period
of slavery, my great-great grandparents lived there. My great-great
grandmother was part Indian and she came from that section up there.
My great-great grandfather was a boat builder. I don't know where
he learned the trade. His brother was a seaman on whaling vessels
and around that is a tremendously moving story. He went to sea and
was gone four and five years at a time.
Silverman: What period of history are you talking about?
Mason: This was after the Civil War, perhaps directly after, in
the 1870's, when they were still catching whales for oil out in the
various seas. This uncle would now be my great-great-great uncle.
He was a seaman and he would come back about every five years, generously
remembering his brother, his brother's wife, and the other relatives.
They made money on these seagoing vessels because they shared the
profits. The last time that he went, he told them that they were planning
to go to a place where there were many, many
whales and they had all been promises a considerable sum of money
if they would stick with this captain and his boat. They were losing
men, you see, as they were going into the factories. Anyway, he loved
the sea and he signed up with that captain that he'd been with for
several years. He said that you won't be hearing from me for a number
of years; but, when you do, it will be something! One beautiful, bright,
summer morning, the postman brought a letter to my grandmother's home
and he asked if there was anyone there by the name of Solomon Williams.
Now, he knew the family, as he lived in the same village. Getting
a letter was an event because they weren't delivered very often because
most people didn't write. He said, "I have a letter here that's for
Solomon Williams and it is very valuable." My great-great grandmother
said, "Well, give it to me. It belongs to the boat builder." He asked
her how he spelled his name. She was partially literate and she told
him as best she could. He then said that he didn't think it was for
him. The letter contained a money order drawn from the United States
Treasury. He took it back to the post office because he said that
the name on the letter wasn't the same. My great-great grandmother
said, "This is absolutely crazy!" The postmaster was a man by the
name of Henry Morgan, who also kept the village store, the bank, and
so forth. The rumor went out the next day that the letter contained
a money order for $40,000. In those days, that was like a million.
Then, the whole family went to the Post Office to see Mr. Morgan about
the letter. They told him that they knew the letter was for Solomon
from his brother and he should give it to them. He was adamant and
refused to give them the letter. You can imagine that, in those days,
blacks didn't have the means to fight injustice. They could talk and
address themselves to the subject; but the remedies were not forthcoming
quickly. This went on for weeks. Finally, one of the members of the
family got a lawyer to write Mr. Morgan about the letter. The result
of that was that the letter had been sent back to Washington. The
lawyer ceased his inquiry and the $40,000 became a legend in the family.
My own mother used to try to get traces of the letter. It either went
to the dead-letter file or there was always the more evil interpretation
of what happened.
Silverman: Did they ever hear from the seaman again?
Mason: Never again - he died somewhere in the sea. Anyhow, that
was the family story. There are many others- my great aunt went to
Seattle as a pioneer. She went with a wagonload of people going to
the west coast's gold fields. She was the only black person in the
group. She was an excellent cook; so, she helped them on the way.
She was free, of course, and this was during the Reconstruction period.
She went to Seattle and opened a restaurant for the loggers coming
down from the north to bring the logs in. She prospered
with her restaurant business and became very well known. She built
a larger place and finally married a white man out there. That was
the source of estrangement between her family and my mother's people.
She also rebuilt a hotel in Seattle. I guess every family had tales
that are told over and over again.
Silverman: What happened with this aunt?
Mason: She went out to the west coast. I said Seattle but it is
Olympia. She had a hotel that was the finest hotel in that whole area.
This isn't a legend, this is true because I followed it through myself.
She ran this hotel and acquired a great deal of wealth in the meantime
with her business. The man that she married proved not to be such
an asset to her. She wrote to my mother (she was my mother's aunt)
and told her to come out there to stay with her for awhile. She was
getting very old and she needed to have someone out there she could
Silverman: She had no children?
Mason: No - she had no children to handle her business. She did,
however, have very deep ties with the white people there. There were
very, very few blacks in the territory of Washington. She wanted some
the family to come out there to be with her. She had invented some
kind of candy that she sold and had boxed, saying that this was a
wonderful opportunity. Of course, going to Olympia, Washington in
those days was incomparable. This was an adventure that no one had
the courage to undertake and besides, it took money to get out there.
She said that she would pay for someone to come out and stay with
her, but no one went. That was a very sad error in judgement. When
she died in the 1920's, no one went to her funeral because they didn't
have the money. She had kept correspondence with mother and three
or four months after she died, my mother received an anonymous letter
from Olympia, Washington saying, "If any of you can get out here any
possible way, come - because the estate of Lucretia Williams is being
probated and this estate belongs to you because she's told us, I was
her good friend, and that you are related to her - her grand-niece.
Somebody should come out here and see what is going on." No one had
the money to go. Of course today, you'd hire a smart lawyer to go
out there. But, you had no one like that then. My mother got her a
lawyer in Auburn and he rode out there, but it was completely an act
of futility. Everyone clammed up and it was a conspiracy to not let
the facts out. Several years went by and finally a box came. It had
a beautiful gold watch and a paisley shawl that was then over a hundred
years old, It had all kinds of other things in it, but no money -
just things that she had accumulated. The paisley shawl is in this
house today. That's how I know this is true. In the summer, in the
went to Olympia, to the court house and the clerk of the court showed
me the Old records. I had to come back the next day because they were
in storage and had to be taken out. He showed me where the hotel had
been. It had been where the capital of the state of Washington stands
today. She had owned hundreds of acres of land, which no one thought
would ever be put to any use because it was a remote possibility that
there would be large numbers of people moving into the state of Washington
and into Olympia. But, they bought the land from the estate and that's
where they built the capital. When she died, there was a quarter of
a page editorial in the newspaper. I read the article, which stated
that she was the last of the pioneers to come to Washington in the
Gold Rush, had been an astute businesswoman, and had accumulated a
fortune, which, through adversity, had slipped out of her hands. They
described this big hotel where the loggers, men from the north, and
people who were out gold-hunting came. They regretted very much that
she had died in poverty. But, they had not permitted it to affect
her later years because the money was advanced to her from the citizens
in the community so that she wouldn't suffer from her losses. This
was a brilliant, hard-working woman with great fortitude. She was
ingenious and inventive. But, it all came to nothing when you think
of it, except in what it did for her because her fortune was taken
over by other people. There are so many other things that happened
in the days that we were coming up there at home.
Silverman: Tell us about your high school years and how you got
Mason: They weren't very notable. I can't believe the schools
today when they are supposed to be the same type of educational institutions.
Of course, my memory, I think, has vanished because there must have
been some things happening in school that are happening today. I can
remember such things as boys throwing spitballs and that sort of thing;
but I can't remember any manifestations of disorder or threats or
desire to not conform to rules and regulations. I have no sense of
this happening when I was in school.
Silverman: Do you attribute your ability and the degree of success
that you have had to your education or perhaps to your own efforts and
family background? Was it the school that you went to? How much credit
would you give the school, as opposed to your own reading or family
Mason: I don't know that I can mathematically describe that. I
can say that it had to be a very strong mixture of many forces. I
think that, first of all, I was fortunate to have the kind of parents
that I had. Both of them read a great deal. We took the Christian
in our home for years. If we didn't have all of those different kinds
of food we would have liked to have, we did have the black newspaper
that came from New York City weekly called the New York Age. My mother
had a paper come from Boston, called the Boston Guardian which was
published by a very brilliant man by the name of William Trotter,
a graduate of Harvard and a passionate leader for human rights. We
read that paper as though it was a comic book. But, of course, it
had all the seriousness of life in it; it wasn't like a comic book.
All of us were compelled to read both the New York Age and the Boston
Guardian each week. My mother had my brothers carry it out and sell
it for 5 cents a copy. I remember her saying over and over again,
"I have to take some of the money I have set aside for something else
to send to Mr. Moore for the New York Age or Mr. Trotter for the Boston
Guardian," because the people didn't pay that 5 cents a week. She
was determined that they have that newspaper in their homes, whether
they paid or not. She saw to it that the papers were distributed.
The Ladies Home Journal and the Christian Herald were two magazines
that came each month. We read those threadbare because everyone had
to read their section that they wanted. But, to read was tantamount
to eating. You have to read. That is part of living. My father was
a voracious reader. My mother was a voracious reader. And I was a
voracious reader. All of us were. This was the one thing that we had
put into us with great force and consistency, that to get anywhere
in this world, you had to be able to read and understand what you
are reading. My father read excerpts from Holmes' book, Autocrat at
the Breakfast Table. He didn't always read from the Bible because
he wanted to save some time for Autocrat at the Breakfast Table. Then,
he would read Thoreau and his philosophies and Payne. We were acquainted
with those people at a very early age. They became real people to
us; we knew them -- they did this, they did that, they said this,
they said that. It was a part of framing the kind of person we would
be because we already knew that there were people in the world who
protested against injustices of various kinds; therefore, this was
in the cards for us to protest against injustices. Let me give you
one illustration of what I mean. We had an ice cream place ~t home
that was run by a couple of Greeks They were attempting to adapt themselves
to the mores of the community. They did everything the American people
did in order to be counted as blooming, growing, American citizens.
One of the things that they accepted as a way that they had to follow
was refusing to serve black people in their restaurant. I remember
we went in there one day from high school to get sundaes. We sat down
at the counter and there were also two young white people who lived
in the neighborhood there. He asked us what we wanted and we said
sundaes. When we finished eating, he attempted to charge us twice
as much as he was charging the whites. So, when we decided that we
weren't going to pay any more than the white customers, he took our
glasses that we had been using and broke them with a hammer and threw
them in the trash can. But, he didn't throw the dishes away that the
two white girls who were with us had been using. We wanted to get
more ice cream to see if he was going to continue this breakage play,
but we didn't have any more money. We went home and told our parents
what had happened. It quickly spread over town that the Greek place
was trying not to serve black people. He led himself into a very sad
situation because a number of blacks went there consistently and had
him break the dishes. He would break them in front of you. They would
go in threes and fours every day, after work and he unwittingly began
to damage his own business because they not only had to break dishes
every day, but they had taken some sympathetic young white people
with them and exchanged glasses so that they had to break all of them.
The white people would pass their dishes back to the blacks and he
broke all of the glasses. This lasted about a couple of months, when
the organization which my mother headed up had a conference with them
and they decided they had better conform to civil rights.
Silverman: Were there civil rights then?
Mason: Yes - in New York state there was. They had a civil rights
act for a long time in New York. They just couldn't discriminate against
people, but it wasn't enforced.
Silverman: Isn't this right after World War I that you are talking
Mason: That's right. It was a situation that had a great deal
of viability in terms of black and white relationships because the
black people were beginning to sense the feeling that they were compelled
to see that the law was observed.
Silverman: What organization did your mother head?
Mason: A local group who were distressed over many aspects of
living in poverty.
Silverman: How large of a black population did they have in Auburn?
Mason: I guess about two hundred.
Silverman: Was it a community of several thousand, a city, or just
Mason: There were Irish, Italians, and Polacks and they comprised
a good part of the group. Then, of course, the religious groups were
there, too. White, middle-class, and some higher than middle-class,
Protestants ran the town ostensibly, but the other people were getting
in very rapidly into political positions, like the mayor, district
attorney, and other aspects of city government. The political parts
were centered on the Catholics -- the Irish and the Italians. They
have an affinity for politics. The other people let them have that
part of running the city, while they ran the business (part) and the
education processes. The prejudice was there, but it was smeared over.
It wasn't written into the laws, but it was written into the minds
and the actions of the people. For an example, you didn't see any
black clerks in the stores. You saw one black in the Post Office and
when he died, there weren't any there. Prejudice in employment that's
where it began first because if that is closed for you, then a great
many other things are closed, too. That's exactly what happened. Employment
was relegated to certain jobs -- menial jobs and unskilled labor.
There were a few factories, like the agricultural appliance factory.
I can't seem to think of the name of it, but it is still in existence
in Chicago. Oh, it's McCormick and they had blacks there.
Silverman: Were they admitted into the unions?
Mason: No -- they didn't have any unions then. There was a factory
where they made rope and that's where I worked for two or three summers.
The Polacks struck for higher wages during one of the worst year's
weather- wise and they were out of work for a long time. They were
striking for a salary at $1.00/hour. It caused a very great hardship
for them. The Polacks could eat just potatoes and survive and that's
what they did. They held out until they were recognized and their
wages were raised. The blacks then began to go into the factories
to work. In the meantime, some of the Poles went to Syracuse and various
places. They needed black workers. So, they took them in to spin the
machines and other things in the factory. That was the first introduction
into that type of work where women were employed. All of the disadvantages
of working women were manifest there. You stood on your feet for ten
hours a day, with a slight break here and there to go to the washroom,
and take a small rest break. But, for an example, you were afraid
to stay in the washroom too long. It was specified how long you could
be there and if you didn't come out, they had their little assistant
go in and find out what happened to you. The union finally got it
down to working ten hours, but there was a time when you worked fourteen
Silverman: Was this in your time?
Mason: That's right, in my time. The manufacturers were very adverse
to the whole-unionized labor leagues. The powers that be didn't want
any parts of a union, but they were forced to accept them. The unions
became stronger and affiliated nationally. They exerted their power.
Anyway, we knew that we had to an education. It was obvious; we didn't
have to go to school to learn that. We saw it all around us that you
had to have an education to succeed. In all the twelve years that
I was in school in Auburn, I never had a black teacher. I never had
a black instructor in any way, shape, or form. My aunt, who was my
mother's sister, was a graduate of the high school and she went to
school to become a teacher. She was young, competent, and able, but
she had to come to Virginia to teach. This was in Manassas, Virginia
where they had black schools. She was so surprised to find schools
where they did have black teachers. We knew that there were segregated
schools in the south, but we were under the impression that if a black
person became qualified, that the next step would be an assignment
to a school in Auburn. This, we found out, was not true. There was
a very bright, young woman who graduated from Syracuse University
and applied in Auburn, but was refused an appointment. She finally
went to Syracuse and received a position there. Auburn just wasn't
ready for this.
Silverman: Was this true throughout the state?
Mason: It was practically true throughout the state. There were
very few in New York City.
Silverman: When did it change?
Mason: It began to change after World War II.
Silverman: That was late, but you got a big job in New York in the
Mason: That was something different. I had prepared for an executive
position in college, in social work. I had studied business, political
science, and social work subjects. When I applied for my position
in New York, I applied for the highest position offered. Of course,
I didn't receive it, but because I did apply, I was given a job, which
was in the bracket of what I was seeking. I was given the job of interviewer
at one of the welfare offices.
Silverman: This was in 1930?
Mason: No - this was in 1939.
Silverman: Was that the first social work job that you've had?
Mason: No - I worked in Baltimore and then in Brooklyn.
Silverman: But, you graduated from the University of Chicago in
1925 and you didn't have any type of job in social work until 1939?
Mason: I was doing social work when I was in Baltimore and Brooklyn.
Then, I came to Norfolk and did social work in the YWCA. I had some
background. I heard about these positions opening up in New York City,
but there weren't any such openings in Norfolk, where people could
work with the city staff. I had never worked with the city, just private
organizations. My son was at the age where he could go into public
school. He had gone to a private school in New York City and we decided
that he would go to public school. I went up there to be with him
when he was graduating from high school.
Silverman: When was that?
Mason: That was in 1942. He finished high school and went on into
college. I had thought that he would go to a black school and he did
go to Union, but he didn't like it there. That's when he went to Colby.
Silverman: Why did you want him to go to a black school?
Mason: Well, because my husband had gone to a black school before
he went to the University of Chicago. He loved Union -- it was his
hope and his lifeblood.
Silverman: Where is Union?
Mason: It's in Richmond and I wanted my son to go there because
I thought he'd probably have a love for Union like Tom had. But, he
didn't like it there at all. He stayed there one year and then went
to Colby. He then went on to Howard Law School. It was simply sentiment,
on my part, that I encouraged him to go to Union because I don't think
that he really wanted to go there in the first place. I'm not sure.
Silverman: That's when you came back to Norfolk? You had already
become a director in New York.
Mason: I had become the Director of Social Service in New York
City. I had gone by consecutive steps.
Silverman: When did you first start to work there?
Mason: I guess it was in 1935. I left there in '42 and I was the
director for two years. I bought the house in 1940, when I was working
in the Department of Welfare. I didn't work there more than seven
years all together. They suggested I apply for the disability pension,
but I hadn't been there long enough to be eligible for it. This was
for my accident, when I had stopped working completely.
Silverman: What accident?
Mason: I had come home to spend the Labor Day weekend there and
I was going back because the war was going on. I was on a plane that
I did a lot of talking to get on because they were bumping people
right and left. On the plane, I sat beside a woman who lived in Long
Island and we were going to take the same plane to New York from Washington.
When we got to Washington, the plane had been gone because it was
late getting from here. So, we decided to take the Congressional Limited
to New York. It was a fast train and wouldn't cost so much. We went
to the window to buy tickets and she took a first-class ticket and
I got a coach ticket because it was $10 or $12 more and I thought
it was foolish to spend that kind of money when the coach is almost
the same. I was sitting in the coach reading. There was a couple in
front of me with a baby in one of those carriers. In back of me, there
was a couple of women and we got to talking before we even left Washington.
I was telling them about the plane and they were saying that they
had a similar instance. The train was getting ready to go and I went
into the dining room to eat. The man came by to pick up the tickets
and I put mine on the table, but he never picked it up. So, I put
it back and went to the coach to sit down. The man came through twice
and he still didn't pick up the tickets. He kept saying, "I'll be
back. I'll be back." The reason why I'm telling you this is because
they set up a sabotage so that the train would wreck. I got up to
get some water as we were approaching Philadelphia and the water carrier
was empty. A black boy walked by and I told him that there wasn't
any water. Just as I told him, this terrible noise came and you could
hear the horrible crashing, then it was dark. I thought of the letter
in my pocket to pay my accident insurance. It was due that day and
I hadn't mailed it. That was the first thing that I thought of when
I heard the crash. I was praying that we weren't over water because
I knew that if we were, we'd get locked in that car with no way-out.
When I finally came to, there were all these screams throughout the
car. The people in front of me were dead. They were lying right in
the aisle. My shoes and pocketbook were gone. These two girls across
from me who were so happy and excited about, I guess, their holiday
were screaming so dreadfully that I went over and shook them because
they didn't know they were screaming. They were like zombies. All
around us were people who were dead. By this time, the fire department
and the police department were chopping out the glass in the windows
to drag the people out. I was taken to the hospital and I didn't know
that I was covered in cuts and bleeding all over. My back was giving
me a terrible fit. When I got to the hospital, I saw the boy who was
going to get some
water when we were on the train. I was so concerned about him that
I asked about his condition. He had both of his legs cut off. I fainted
right there. If he had just gone one step, he might not have been
killed. There were eighty-nine people killed in that wreck.
Silverman: What was the cause of it?
Mason: They said sabotage. This was during the war, around 1942.
That's what the rumor said. They denied it, of course. It was in the
papers and, worst of all, the paper had prematurely announced that
I had been killed.
My family was in terrible turmoil because they thought I had died,
Silverman: Where were you taken?
Mason: the Presbyterian hospital in Philadelphia
Silverman: Did you ever go back to work?
Mason: Never - that was the end of everything, for at least a
couple of years. I was hospitalized in Boston. Of course, I was hospitalized
in Philadelphia because something happened to my back and they wanted
to operate, but I wouldn't let them operate on my back.
Silverman: And you recovered anyway?
Mason: Yes - I have back trouble, but everyone has back trouble!
It will sort of twist up when I stand erect. Anyhow, that was a terrible
Silverman: Then you moved back to Norfolk?
Mason: I was already back. I was just going up there to finish
up a couple of months, so that I could leave everything straight.
I'd already decided to be back. It was terrible. I sometimes dream
of it. I don't know why those things happen. The people, who were
seriously injured, like having a leg taken off or an arm, were still
alive. It was those people who were killed so innocently that got
to you, seeing all those bodies strewn about. The train struck a steel
pole and it split right down the middle. That's what happened. This
was the end of everything - young people, old people, children, and
Silverman: So you were an invalid for a while?
Mason: For quite a while, I couldn't do anything. I was very despondent
because I had gotten acquainted with some of the people who had died.
It happened in the twinkling of an eye because one moment I was saying,
"Isn't it a shame?" and the next moment, I was unconscious. That is
what life is like, isn't it?
Silverman: Your life can change so dramatically.
Mason: Every so often, I recall things in my childhood. I wonder
why I remember some things and don't remember others. I guess that
is characteristic of children. I remember a house that we lived in.
It was a fairly decent house with two-stories. It wasn't quite large
enough for eight of us, but we managed somehow. We had a backyard
and the loveliest thing about that yard was a great, big apple tree
that bore big, fat, hard green apples every fall. My mother used to
make us pick them as soon as they fell. We buried them in straw and
put them in the basement for the winter. We had applesauce and apple
pie 'til it almost ran out of our ears. Now as I look back at it,
the delicious crust (of the pie) and the delectable taste of those
sour, green apples comes back to me almost like the dream. Then I
remember other things, too. We moved into a neighborhood where there
were no black people. There were only white neighbors. They resented
our coming in there very much indeed. For, I guess, about twenty-five
years, the neighbors never spoke and we went in and out of the house
and played in the yard. There were children on either side of us,
but they never came into our yard to play and we didn't go into theirs.
The people across the street always gave us such a dower look when
we came out on the porch, cut the lawn, or did anything that a normal
family does. I guess I used to wonder why we were always playing,
laughing, and having such a good time because, as you know, most people
think that poor, black people lead very unhappy lives. But the unhappiness
is not in this intimate life and family style. We used to have lots
of fun. We knew we were poor because we had to do without so much,
but it wasn't an unhappiness that seems to characterize so many young
Silverman: It wasn't the ghetto-life that you lived.
Mason: Well, it was the same kind of life that a lot of black
people lived. There was a myth that grew and expanded that black people
were miserable because they lived in ghettos and areas where other
people didn't live. But this wasn't really true, I remember my friends
and what fun we used to have. I remember the serious days when our
mothers and fathers would talk about conditions in the city. We knew
about the conditions from a very early age. I think that was one reason
why their admonition to stay in school and get an education had such
force. They always said that you'd never get anywhere in life unless
you had an education. They used to tell about the kinds of jobs you
could get and the occupations that were open. I think this was something
that lived with us a long, long time.
Silverman: As limited as the opportunities were then for the black
Mason: They were really limited. I must tell you about my brother
who was a very brilliant and ambitious young man. He went to Harvard
and graduated from there.. There were job openings in New York State
for inspectors of factories. The qualifications weren't very severe.
You had to have a high school education and be able to do some mathematics.
Those qualifications would be nothing today. My brother took the examination
for this job. He made the highest score that had ever been made for
this particular position. A couple of weeks later, the job was abolished
because of economic reasons. It was obvious, of course, what it was
for. A black had had the audacity to surpass his white competitors
and the idea of a black going into inspect factories, to check on
the laws, to check on the various requirements the state of New York
had was unbearable and unthinkable to the people who had power. So,
he just vanished from the role because it no longer existed. This
happened all over what was supposed to be one of the most liberal
states in the Union. It is the same pattern that still exists, probably
not as blatant as destroying a job, but other ways in which discrimination
exists. This is why the Affirmative Action policy and all the efforts
being made today to bring about some kind of equity of employment
are so very, very serious. This is why everyone should join forces
to try to see that the laws and the philosophy is steadied in the
American people. There were other occasions on this job business that
I could relay the whole volume of happiness. The business of employment,
I think, is what strikes black people so fervently and with such tragic
force is not being able to get a job when one wants to work and is
qualified. This can be, perhaps, the most devastating experience an
individual can face.
Silverman: Oh, I'm sure of it. This went for the white people too,
but, of course, the blacks were doubly barred. It wasn't just the lack
of opportunity because there were whites who couldn't get jobs during
Mason: It was the inequality of the treatment.
Silverman: And, then of course, the feeling that you are qualified
but overlooked. Don't you think that today there is a danger that some
of these people are not qualified and they are still getting the job?
Don't you worry about that?
Mason: I don't believe that's true. I think the myth that persists
with sickening force in America is that you have to make a great many
concessions for black people. This becomes very obnoxious when you
see the qualifications and performance of white people that are taken
on. They are just automatically assumed to be qualified. Their very
whiteness gives them the qualifications that blacks don't have.
Silverman: No - I'm not talking about that. But, in the case of
brother , they abolished the position because he was the best qualified.
Don't you think we should still look for the best qualified?
Mason: Of course we should. But, we musn't make our standards
for blacks higher than we make them for whites.
Silverman: Of course not - for anybody.
Mason: That is the evil of it that we unconsciously demand for
blacks that they have greater qualifications or apparently have greater
qualifications than their white colleagues. This is one of the real
problems in America today. When someone talks about giving special
consideration to blacks, that is not done in terms of qualifying.
This is done in terms of the expectations these people bring to the
job is enough to qualify them to enter into that job. If they don't
make it, out they go. They do that very quickly. We still persist
in our mind in thinking that there is a limitation as to what blacks
ought to aspire to and limitations to what they can achieve.
Silverman: Oh, I don't think that is so anymore, not in my experience.
I think, today, many people are really looking for blacks to favor.
I do think that is so. Many young blacks are getting opportunities that
they never had.
Mason: They are getting opportunities that have been prevalent
for whites all during existence. This is the point. Now they are getting
them. Some of the people who even take them on are hoping that they
will make good.
Silverman: Oh, yes - they are. And I can tell you, in personal experience
or from people whom I know want very much to employ blacks, that in
some instances, they've had them where they were not satisfactory and
they did not dismiss them, fearing that they would be accused of prejudice.
Mason: Well, I don't think they should be (afraid). I think that
they ought to apply the same standards to blacks and whites as they
Silverman: Yes - because, in any group, there are some who are qualified
and some who aren't.
Mason: This is a kind of lesson in the reality of life today.
If you can't make it, out you have to go. I don't think that a person
doing a black a favor by keeping him on when he's not qualified is
Silverman: I think he's actually doing the qualified black a great
disservice to keep on the unqualified one.
Mason: Exactly. This affects their own thinking about the employment
of blacks. It's a natural course because
if a white person was in conflict, he would have them flying so quickly,
unless he saw something in that person that warranted his special
attention, undergirding, and training of that person. This you find
in people. They don't develop immediately, but there is something
in that person that you say that you can reach and help. This is a
legitimate activity; it is done all the time, from the great tycoons
of the automobile industry down to a factory worker. We don't always
fire people who don't make good. Some employers are very far-sighted.
They have a sense of social responsibility. If they get a man or woman
who is not top-notch, they think that they want to learn. They have
this disadvantage and they need this training. The associations that
they are having now is not common place to them.
These may be some of the factors that enter into their performance.
I'm not going to let this prevent me from giving this person the full
chance I believe he deserves. Then, if they cannot respond or do not
respond, it is up to the employer to make a final decision. The fact
still remains that we have an enormous amount of prejudice and bias
in relation to the employment of people. Do you know how many thousand
complaints that the Equal Opportunity Employment office has today?
It's piled up into the thousands. There is no hope on earth that they
will ever get to some of those complaints. They don't have the manpower,
nor are they able to do the research or have the cases brought to
trial or even to inspection because there are so many. The discrimination
against blacks in employment is still a factor, a very big factor,
in America. Just because we see blacks here and there - in a bank,
a store, a factory, a school system - we mustn't have the illusion
that this is very commonplace phenomena and that it is easy for blacks
to get jobs.
In addition to the March 29,
1978 and October 19, 1978 interviews,
two more interviews were conducted. The March 24, 1978 tape is nearly
inaudible. The May 8, 1978 interview is audible and will be transcribed.
See also "Vivian
Carter Mason: Civil Rights Activist and Educator"
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