Skip to Content
Black and White Photograph of standing students

Education Crusader

Working for Social Justice

Photograph of Vivian Carter Mason

Vivian Carter Mason, 1950s

Vivian Carter Mason (1900–1982) was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and raised in Auburn, New York, where her father pastored a church and her mother taught music. Her parents were active in the Black community and taught their children to value education and protest injustice. Mason attended integrated public schools in Auburn and earned a degree in political economy and social welfare from the University of Chicago. In 1925 she married William Thomas Mason, a real estate and insurance agent based in Norfolk, Virginia. She pursued a career in social work in New York City, where she earned an appointment as the first African American director of the Department of Welfare’s social service division. She was also active in women’s organizations, including the National Council of Negro Women, serving as vice president under founder Mary McLeod Bethune and later as the NCNW’s third president (1953–1957).

Photograph of Vivian Carter Mason

Vivian Carter Mason, 1950s

Women’s Council for Interracial Cooperation

Image of Summary of Women’s Council’s Work for Schools

Summary of Women’s Council’s Work for Schools, 1945–1959

After suffering an injury in a train crash in 1943, Vivian Carter Mason left her job in New York and moved back to Norfolk, Virginia. As she witnessed the poverty and discrimination that Black people experienced in the segregated South, she began seeking out others in the community who shared her interest in social justice. In 1945, Mason convened a group of Black and white women to form the Women’s Council for Interracial Cooperation (WCIC). The WCIC held public meetings, conducted investigations, sponsored programs, and lobbied Norfolk city officials to address racial inequities in education, health care, housing, and employment. The WCIC also aimed to “improve interracial attitudes” and “work towards full citizenship privileges for all.” By building bridges across the racial divide, Mason and her fellow WCIC members inspired other interracial efforts and helped pave the way for desegregation in Norfolk. Yet the fight for equal education would prove to be a long-lasting one.

Image of Summary of Women’s Council’s Work for Schools

Summary of Women’s Council’s Work for Schools, 1945–1959

We are not fighting to be integrated into American life; we have been integrated since the day we were born here. We are fighting for the same rights other Americans enjoy.

Vivian Carter Mason, 1954 

Fighting for Equal Education

Black and White Photograph of standing students

Norfolk 17 Students at First Baptist Church, 1959

In 1958, four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, the Norfolk school board voted to integrate the city’s all-white schools. Virginia Governor James Almond, who backed a policy of “massive resistance” to desegregation, responded by closing all the public schools in Norfolk. Vivian Carter Mason and the WCIC worked with other civic groups to get the schools reopened, raising funds for a lawsuit to challenge the governor’s order, organizing letter-writing campaigns, and arranging tutoring programs for students. In early 1959, federal judges ordered the schools reopened, and the first African American students—known as the “Norfolk 17”—were admitted.

After desegregation, Mason continued her crusade for equal education. She co-founded the Norfolk Committee for the Improvement of Education (NCIE), and in 1971 she became the first Black woman to serve on the Norfolk school board. In 1978 she founded the local chapter of the National Urban League, known today as the Urban League of Hampton Roads, Inc.

Black and White Photograph of standing students

Norfolk 17 Students at First Baptist Church, 1959

Read more Lesser Known Stories

Photograph of 5 women from AKA Sorority

The Mississippi Health Project II: AKA Revisits Its Model for Community Health Care

In June and October of 2021, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. offered an array of health services to Mississippi residents in underserved communities.

Portrait of Bridget Biddy Mason

Bridget “Biddy” Mason

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Bridget “Biddy” Mason helped to establish the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

Photograph of Workers at the Pacific Parachute Company

The Pacific Parachute Company

Skydiving entrepreneur Howard “Skippy” Smith founded one of the first Black-owned and managed war production plants during World War II.

Cover image of "Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South"

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins

Literary author and editor Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins used the power of her pen to challenge society’s assumptions about Black women.

Photograph of Homer G. Philips hospital and students

Homer G. Phillips Hospital and School of Nursing

Homer G. Phillips Hospital served as a preeminent training facility for African American nurses and physicians during segregation.