Mason, Lucy Randolph (1882–1959)
Mason, Lucy Randolph (1882–1959)
American labor activist and social reformer who served as the highly effective "roving ambassador" for the CIO in the South for 16 years . Born Lucy Randolph Mason at "Clarens" on Seminary Hill near Alexandria, Virginia, on July 26, 1882; died in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 6, 1959; daughter of Landon Randolph Mason (1841–1923, an Episcopal minister) and Lucy (Ambler) Mason (1848–1918); sister of Anna Mason , Ida Mason, John Mason, Landon Mason, and Randolph Mason; never married.
Lucy Randolph Mason was a direct descendent of some of the oldest and most respected families of the South. Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, was hardly exaggerating when he wrote of her ancestry—which entitled her to membership in both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy—that "When it came to ancestors she made all the others seem parvenus." On both parents' sides, she was related to George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights and a friend of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. (In 1775, George Mason had urged his fellow revolutionary leaders to start their new nation in a spirit of justice by abolishing slavery, arguing prophetically, "Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.") On her mother's side, she was also related to John Marshall (first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), and on her father's side to Robert E. Lee (her father's second cousin).
Her parents, whom she described as "deeply good, sincerely spiritual and most humanly kind," strove to transform their Christian beliefs into practical reality. Lucy's father Landon Randolph Mason was an Episcopal minister who had served with Mosby's Raiders in the Civil War; his social theology prompted him to such acts as carrying a sack of coal through deep snow to an impoverished widow who was not even a member of his congregation. Lucy's mother Lucy Ambler Mason was, if anything, more emphatic in her views of how the gospel should be lived in daily life. Years later, she would be described by her daughter as "a born social worker, without benefit of study for that profession. In addition to helping countless individuals, she frequently turned her attention to remedying evil institutions."
Shocked by the conditions of prisons, and convinced that reforms could achieved, Lucy's mother was a near-constant visitor at the state penitentiary in Richmond. She often appeared before the Virginia legislature to plead for prison reform and kept the issue alive through newspaper articles and pamphlets. The Mason home eventually became an unofficial halfway house for recently released convicts who, as her daughter would recall later, needed a helping hand to get back on their feet after being released from prison: "Nearly all of these men kept up with Mother afterwards and became good citizens—and mostly good Christians."
While rich in traditions and compassion for the less fortunate, the Mason family was relatively poor in financial resources. Neither Lucy nor her sister Ida Mason were able to complete high school. Lucy dreamed of becoming a foreign missionary, but lack of funds kept her in Richmond. With initiative likely prompted by necessity, she bought a shorthand manual and with a rented typewriter taught herself stenography, so that she could work at home. Around the same time, she taught Sunday School classes in a mission church located in one of Richmond's working-class areas. She also organized industrial clubs for her pupils, who were mostly working girls from the nearby tobacco factories. Industrial capitalism had not brought prosperity to the great majority of the city's wage earners, either black or white, and the harsh, squalid nature of their existences ignited a reform movement.
While working as a stenographer at a law firm in Richmond, Mason remained active in church-related and other local educational efforts. Increasingly drawn to the feminist movement, she was convinced that women could only achieve the social reforms they believed in if they possessed the ballot. In The Divine Discontent, a pamphlet published in 1912 by the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, she noted that the women's suffrage movement was an expression of discontent rather than of "mere dissatisfaction or disquiet." "Divine discontent" she argued, "has been responsible for every reformation accomplished in the history of our race. It has furnished the incentive for progress and development. It has led to the purifying of religion, politics and all social institutions."
In 1914, Mason became the industrial secretary of Richmond's Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), thus becoming the first woman to be appointed to such a position in any Southern state. She used her new post to educate working women and carry on lobbying activities for legislation that would bring about major reforms of women's working conditions, including an eight-hour day and restriction of night work. No doubt taking advantage of her family's prestige, Mason became involved in activities that were by no means totally endorsed by the Richmond establishment, such as organizing support for an all-female strike at a local company. Increasingly convinced that only collective bargaining and unionization would bring about significant social changes for female wage earners in the South, she became an active member of the Union Label League, which urged consumers to purchase only union-made products. Mason's work soon brought her to the attention of Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1917, he named her the Virginia chair of the Committee on Women in Industry of the wartime National Advisory Committee on Labor.
With her mother's sudden death in 1918, Mason resigned from her YWCA position in order to take care of her father, who was in declining health. For the next five years, supported by her brother John, she carried out volunteer work as president of the Richmond Equal Suffrage League and of its successor organization, the Richmond League of Women Voters. Now that women had won the right to vote, noted Mason in her speeches and articles, they had a special role to play in the ongoing reform of the social order, most of all by advocating the passage of legislation that would bring about a significant "humanizing of the industrial processes." In 1923, after her father's death, she returned to her career at the Richmond YWCA, serving as the general secretary of that organization from then until 1932.
In 1931, Mason's various activities in Virginia brought her to the attention of Florence Kelley
of the National Consumers' League (NCL), a major national labor-reform organization. For two months of that year, Mason worked on behalf of the NCL as director of the fledgling Southern Council on Women and Children in Industry. During this period, she helped publicize a progressive agenda of labor legislation and also wrote a pamphlet entitled Standards for Workers in Southern Industry that would prove to be of considerable influence over the next decade.
In September 1932, she moved to New York City to succeed Florence Kelley as NCL general secretary. Although the cause of labor, particularly in the South, was profoundly demoralized, better times were on the horizon; the start of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal (March 1933) signaled a more sympathetic Federal role in regard to labor in the South.
Over the next four years, Mason spent countless hours promoting labor and social-welfare legislation aimed at improving working and living conditions in the South, described by the National Emergency Council as "the Nation's Number One economic problem." During the first several years of the New Deal, working conditions and wages in the South improved little if at all. Although optimistic about the future, she had no illusions about the difficulties of organizing labor in the region. Mason was more than aware of the immense economic, racial, and social problems which remained endemic in the states of the former Confederacy, and at times she was bitterly disappointed. On one occasion, she wrote to a friend: "Virginia killed every social and labor bill except a mutilated amendment to the child labor law." Workers and their families faced violence if they attempted to organize into unions; state militia were called out to crush workers; and in one state, Georgia, Governor Talmadge imprisoned many strikers in compounds that soon became known as "concentration camps."
In 1937, Mason began working for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a militant union based on industry-wide, rather than craft, organization of labor. While testifying before a congressional committee in support of a national Fair Labor Standards bill, she met John L. Lewis, the legendary leader of the coal miners, who was now CIO president. Lewis offered Mason the job of public-relations officer—in effect, a kind of "roving ambassador"—of the CIO in the Southern states. During her first months on the job, she began to realize the immensity of the task before her. Mason's initial visits to the South during this period quickly made it clear to her that labor had few if any friends among the politicians, press, police, or general public. "When I came South I had no idea of the frequency of attacks on people peacefully pursuing legitimate purposes," she wrote President Roosevelt (August 12, 1937). "I am appalled at the disregard of the most common civil rights and the dangers of bodily harm to which organizers often are exposed."
Although she remained proud of her Southern origins, Mason was disappointed by "a conspiracy of silence" from the region's press on matters of anti-worker violence and intimidation. In one despairing moment, she described the South as "Fascist," a place in which "the domination of the Negro had made it easier to repeat the pattern for organized labor."
During Mason's first months in her new position, she received helpful advice from local labor veterans, including Steve Nance. Having served as president of the Georgia AFL, Nance was now director of a unionization drive in the South by the Textile Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC). He quickly became Mason's trusted colleague and mentor, giving her confidence but also cautioning her that the "only possible way" to achieve lasting results in the region was by relying on "infinite patience and diplomacy." Mason took his advice to heart, using it to temper her sometimes impetuous desire to fell injustice—economic, racial, or social—with one dramatic blow. But Nance died soon after, at age 41 (April 1938), largely as the result of overwork.
For 16 years, Mason worked as public-relations officer for the CIO, striving to change Southern attitudes toward labor unions and working-class militancy. Her base of operations during these years was a small but comfortable apartment on Myrtle Street in northeast Atlanta, which served as her home, office and archive. Despite the South's skepticism, if not violent hostility, toward the ideals she stood for, she refused to be discouraged. Drawing from her earlier experience with the YWCA and NCL, she spoke before college and university classrooms, church groups, social worker conventions, and civic clubs. She pointed out that labor unions were not "un-American" conspiracies, but that they represented a progressive way to bring about positive social change. When CIO organizers and members suffered violence at the hands of employers or local police and other officials, Mason was on hand to intervene, bringing these violations of civil and human rights to the attention of the national media. On more than one occasion, Mason slipped into the White House to present labor's side in a conflict to her personal friend Eleanor Roosevelt , whom Mason regarded as "the first lady of the world."
Playing a significant role in the slow but steady growth of Southern liberalism, Mason was for many years an active member of the key organizations that made possible the South's transformation from within by natives committed to the ideals of economic, racial and social justice. She was involved in the work of such organizations as the Southern Policy Committee, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and the Southern Regional Council, as well as the Highlander Folk School and the Southern Summer School for Women Workers. On more than one occasion, she used her illustrious lineage to awe a fellow Southerner who seethed with hostility to unionism. Labor organizer Miles Horton, noting her ancestry, remarked:
You can't get more kosher than that in Virginia, but she kind of had an interest in working people that most people of that kind of background don't have…. Boy, shewas a power. We would all yell for Lucy anytime that we needed help and she would come into the toughest situation and was great. She played a tremendous role, a tremendous role.
There are literally hundreds of "Miss Lucy stories" recalling Mason's courage in the face of physical danger. On one occasion, she trailed a gang of thugs around a Georgia mill town because of her concern for the physical safety of a union official, reasoning that "the mob would think twice about attacking him if an old lady was there as a witness."
Lucy Mason retired from her CIO post in 1953 and died in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 6,1959. In her obituary, Ralph McGill described Mason as a woman small in stature, prematurely grayhaired, who wore gold-rimmed glasses and blushed easily. She was a "very kind sweet lady, characterized, too, by all the graces of the old Virginia of plantations and the gentry." Above all, Lucy Randolph Mason impressed those who met her as being "a born lady." She advanced the cause of justice in the South, a region steeped in history, talent, and tragedy. While Mason was an experienced advocate with considerable political skills, a good deal of her prestige was derived from her character—the idealism, integrity, and courage she displayed throughout her life.
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Mason, Lucy Randolph. "The CIO and the Negro in the South," Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 14, Fall, 1945, pp. 552–561.
——. The Divine Discontent. Richmond: Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, 1912.
——. "I Turned to Social Action Right at Home," in Liston Pope, ed., Labor's Relation to Church and Community: A Series of Addresses. New York and London: Institute for Religious and Social Studies/Harper & Brothers, 1947, pp. 145–155.
——. To Win These Rights: A Personal Story of the IO in the South. Foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
"Miss Lucy R. Mason, 77, Ex-CIO Official, Dies," in Atlanta Constitution. May 7, 1959, p. 21.
Reed, Linda. Simple Decency and Common Sense: The Southern Conference Movement, 1938–1963. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.
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Lucy Randolph Mason Papers, Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia