Tuesday, December 18, 2007

For as long as she could, Hilda Howland Minnis Mason could “cut the rug.”

Today, that”s as passe a description of being a good dancer as “power to the people” is a bygone slogan of today”s tony representatives of elected government.

The city”s longest-serving elected official, who earned the self-proclaimed title of the “grandmother of the world,” was often the last person “working it” — the latest D.C. dance steps into the wee hours on and off the campaign trail.

“Wave your hands in the air and act like you just don”t care,” I believe was the last endearing D.C. go-go move I saw Mrs. Mason make before illness forced her from the public arena.

Mrs. Mason governed like she danced and lived, like she just didn”t care what others thought of her as long as she was “doing what the spirit says do.” She served as a member of the D.C. Council, the D.C. Board of Education, Metro Board of Directors and the D.C. Statehood Party.

On Sunday morning, “grandmother” finally hung up her fancy dancing shoes at the age of 91. Mrs. Mason died in Washington Hospital Center after a long illness.

With her passing, D.C. activists mourn not only the death of a beloved icon but also the passage of an era in which politicians put the needs of constituents before those of big business and corporations.

“She was a good conscientious, conscious woman for the people,” said Anise Jenkins of Stand Up for Democracy, which honored Mrs. Mason at its 10th anniversary gala in October.

This former schoolteacher of rural beginnings spent a lifetime fighting for voting rights, women”s rights, rent control, integrated public transit and accommodations, and quality education.

On the local front, Mrs. Mason fought against the freeway; on the international front, she fought against the growing use of nuclear power.

“I was just talking to [former D.C. Council member] Frank Smith, and we were saying how they”re gone now … they don”t make [politicians] like [my mother] anymore,” said Carolyn Nicholas, Mrs. Mason”s daughter from her first marriage.

Ms. Jenkins agreed.

“There”s no comparison, except for Marion Barry. In general, [the city”s leadership] are not connected to the people. They should be less about business development and more about people development. They should take a page from Mrs. Mason”s legacy and revive that spirit,” she said.

In the rags-to-riches biography that Ms. Nicholas is writing about her mother, she quotes Mrs. Mason saying: “My parents were religiously involved in human rights. My parents struggled to help people any way they could to make sure that others had enough food, clothes and other necessities of life.

“Although the Klan and racial segregation were part of our lives, a number of whites in the community were openly supportive of my father, thereby affording him some measure of protection. For their part, my parents helped needy whites a well as needy blacks. That experience taught me the valuable lesson that people of good will can work together and help one another, regardless of race,” Mrs. Mason said.

Funeral services for Mrs. Mason will be held Sunday near her hometown of Lynch Station, Va.

Her daughter said a local memorial service is being planned for the first weeks of the new year, most likely at All Soul”s Unitarian Church.

It was at the liberal, activist congregation in the mid-1960s that she met her husband, Charles “Charlie” N. Mason Jr. As her unpaid adviser, he was as much a fixture in the halls of the John A. Wilson Building as she.

In an interview, Mrs. Mason said she and her husband “courted, if you could call it that, on the picket line” and noted that her husband and Statehood Party founder Julius Hobson Sr. pushed her into elective office. Now, all three have left us.

“The days of those warriors seem to be gone. She and Julius [Hobson] and Joe [Josephine Butler] were the Three Musketeers … and they set a high bar for honesty and integrity in public office,” said Gail Dixon, a D.C. Statehood Green Party member and former school board member.

“She always understood that public service was not an alternative to activism, you could do both and both are equally important,” activist Lawrence Guyot said of Mrs. Mason.

Ms. Jenkins said former D.C. Council member Nadine Winter once told her that the first city council was composed of “activists from the street” and that although they “didn”t know much about the workings of government, they knew they were there to protect the people.”

Yesterday, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said Mrs. Mason was “involved in many good works quite apart from her council duties” and “she and her husband had a habit of coming to the rescue of somebody who needed most.”

The Masons are credited, for example, of single-handedly keeping the David A. Clarke School of Law alive despite the University of the District of Columbia”s detractors in Congress, the local leaders and the press. The wealthy couple also was known to donate thousands of dollars to individuals and groups from which they expected no political loyalty in exchange.

We can only hope the dancing community spirit of Hilda Howland Minnis Mason “cuts the rug” and continually haunts city hall.

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