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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 288

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This is the grave of Lucy Randolph Mason.

Born to an elite Virginia family in 1882 (she was a direct descendant of George Mason), Mason dedicated her life to improving the lives of poor southerners, white and black. Like many Progressive Era women, she did not marry and instead went into voluntarism. A generation younger than founding Progressives such as Jane Addams who were more focused on voluntarism than state action, she, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, saw the central role of the state in being the ultimate guarantor of rights and thus worked to empower workers, both at the workplace and through law.

As a young women, Mason worked as a stenographer while volunteering for many causes. She moved into professional reform work in 1914 when she was hired as the industrial secretary for the Richmond YWCA branch. She held this until 1918, stepped down to take care of her ailing father, returned in 1923 as its general secretary and then stayed until 1932. The YWCA isn’t an organization we may think of today as advancing progressive causes, but at least some branches were highly involved in this in the early twentieth century and many Progressives ended up there. Mason worked hard to politicize the job by working with Richmond’s black community for economic advancement. She fought for Virginia to pass laws to end child labor, creating wages and hours standards, and legislate safer workplaces. Understanding that unionization was always going to be hard in the South, Mason worked to get employers around the region to sign agreements to raise labor standards based on the principle of doing the right thing. It was an uphill battle. She also was a big leader in getting Americans to buy union label goods and in so, attracted the attention of American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers, who named her chair of the Women in Industry Committee during World War I, which was part of the National Advisory Committee on Labor. In 1931, she wrote Standards for Workers in Southern Industry, an attempt to push for regionwide standards that would match those in other parts of the nation, which of course flew in the face of how the South defined itself economically, which in itself was racialized.

In 1932, Florence Kelley retired as head of the National Consumers’ League. Her three decades of amazing work on labor standards led to some mighty big shoes to fill. Lucy Randolph Mason took on that challenge, at Kelley’s request. Mason helped the Consumers’ League adapt to a new era, working closely with the Roosevelt administration to fight for better labor standards nationally, but especially in the South. That included working for labor codes in the National Industrial Recovery Act and doing serious groundwork in the South to round up votes for the Fair Labor Standards Act. Eleanor Roosevelt and Mason became lifelong friends at this point, as Eleanor felt Mason was leading the way for much needed southern reform.

Mason also was a major supporter of the CIO and its model of industrial-based organizing, which she hoped could work in the South. In 1937, John L. Lewis hired her as the CIO’s public relations representative for the South. She moved to Atlanta, setting up shop in the Textile Workers Organizing Committee offices and remained working at this job until 1953. It’s hard to overestimate how much the CIO was hated in the South. The CIO was demonized with a combination of racebaiting around integration, anti-Semitism, and hatred of outsiders. And if that didn’t work, Southern employers and police forces would simply kill CIO organizers, especially in the small textile towns that the CIO most wanted to organize. Mason’s job basically was to go into these places and browbeat employers and law enforcement into not doing these things. Tough work, especially for an aging woman. Mason managed to do this in part by being an old lady, in part by being the scion of one of the South’s most respected and old families, and in part by simply not showing any fear. She had some success, such as convincing FDR to send investigators to Memphis in 1940 after organizers for the United Rubber Workers were beaten up for organizing black and white workers in the same union. She also convinced the Southern Baptist Convention to pass a resolution endorsing the right to organize and collective bargaining in 1938, which must have been a huge uphill battle.

In 1944, Mason began playing a leading role in CIO-PAC, the political action wing of the federation that hoped to emerge after World War II with a new organizing round that would move the nation significantly toward what we would consider today European style social democracy. She again focused on the South, organizing workers, registering both white and black workers to vote, and fighting for the elimination of the poll tax and other barriers to voting. Mason was heavily involved in Operation Dixie, the CIO attempt to create industrial organizations in the South after the war. The CIO already recognized that union jobs would simply move to the nonunion South if they did not organize. Mason was frustrated by the CIO’s emphasis on organizing mostly white workers, fighting back against the charges of integration by soft-selling it, which basically alienated the black workers who really wanted to organize while failing to attract the ever-skeptical white working class. She wanted the CIO to embrace the potential for full emancipation through not only labor organizing, but civil rights organizing. However, she did say of the CIO:

I believe the CIO unions are doing more to unite the South with the rest of the United States than any other single organization. Regional prejudices have been worn at the edges by the impact of new ideas, new personalities, union papers, state, regional, and national gatherings, and most of all by belonging to a national or international union….The wall has begun to crumble. While many forces have worked toward this end, the union movement has been at the forefront, drawing the energies of a once prejudiced people into a joint endeavor that overcomes every barrier.

Perhaps a bit optimistic but that was the goal anyway. Operation Dixie failed and the inability to organize the South continues to resonate today, as jobs did move there by the millions before leaving for ever cheaper labor overseas. Mason also spent a lot of time building labor-religion alliances in the South, creating organizations between the region’s few liberal churches and unions that resonated for decades.

Mason finally retired in 1953 because of failing health. She managed to publish her autobiography, To Win These Rights, in 1952. I haven’t read it so can’t comment on it. Probably should. She died in 1959, one of the great heroes of American history that very few people know about.

Lucy Randolph Mason is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery, Alexandria, Virginia.

If you would like this series to cover other great women who spent their lives making the world a better place, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ida Wells and Mary McDowell are both in Chicago, for example. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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