Vivian Carter Mason (1953–57)

At the first biennial convention, held in 1953, the National Council of Negro Women elected its third president, Vivian Carter Mason. Having served as vice president under Ferebee, and having worked closely with Bethune, she was well known to the membership. During Ferebee’s extended trips to represent the council at conferences and meetings, both within the United States and abroad, it was Vivian Carter Mason who had chaired the meetings and addressed crucial organizational issues.Vivian Carter Mason served as NCNW president from November 1953 to November 1957.

By 1953, basic program activities were broadly defined under eleven national departments whose titles differed little from the original committees established in the late 1930s. The departments included Archives and Museum, Citizenship Education, Education, Human Relations, International Relations, Labor and Industry, Public Relations, Religious Education, Social Welfare, Youth Conservation, and Fine Arts.

The NCNW’s special projects and programs tended to reflect the apparent needs of its national affiliates and local councils, and during Mason’s administration there was a special emphasis on interracial cooperation.

The NCNW had grown in stature, membership, and influence. Its structure incorporated a rather comprehensive program emphasis; its internal composition included local councils and national affiliates; and its cooperative endeavors, extending to every major program affecting black people, required a national office with the professional expertise and physical resources necessary for administering what had become a large organization. It was the scope of the NCNW’s work, not the size of the membership, that defined the necessary level of administration.

Vivian Carter Mason introduced a tighter and more sophisticated administration, and further interpreted the organization’s program. The national headquarters became the center in which the council greeted national leaders, hosted social functions, and built coalitions with other national organizations. The building was painted, refurbished, and physically realigned to provide additional office space, privacy, and improved working conditions.

Mason understood constitutional law and the importance of developing an instrument that could govern the organization effectively. Under Mason’s administration, the constitution was amended to include additional membership categories such as the Life Members Guild, and to incorporate specific items aimed at curtailing the free-wheeling activities of some local councils and individuals who were acquiring property, soliciting funds, and engaging in partisan political activities not sanctioned by the national office. The NCNW began to require that local councils hold annual elections. Local councils were permitted to structure their own constitutions, with the stipulations that the constitutions conform to the legal scope of the national organization, and that a copy of the document be forwarded to the national office. In 1955 and 1957, revised local council manuals and handbooks for regional directors were distributed to the membership. Mason felt that these materials both explained and enhanced the administrative process.

Vivian Carter Mason was thrust into leadership during one of the most critical and historic periods in American history: on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck at the heart of the “separate but equal” dictum by ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Mason’s administration was dominated by the civil rights struggle that emerged in the 1950s. The NCNW joined with the NAACP and other national organizations to devise strategies to implement the 1954 Supreme Court decision. Following the court decision, the NCNW met with affiliate presidents and experts in education and group relations to discuss program development throughout the nation. In October 1954, the heads of eighteen national organizations of women met to share information concerning both implementation of the Supreme Court decision and educational programs. Two years later, the twenty-first annual convention was an interracial conference of women. This conference explored how women of all colors and all persuasions could work to surmount barriers to human and civil rights. Other activities included public programs supportive of Rosa Parks, Autherine Lucy, and the Birmingham bus boycott. Mason visited Alabama to acquire first-hand information on the situation there.

During her four years as NCNW president, Vivian Carter Mason succeeded in moving the council to another level. Assessing her administration, she said that many of the goals had not been reached. In her recommendations for the future, she cited a number of areas that needed the immediate attention of the next president. She suggested that the NCNW develop more local councils and strengthen existing ones by continuing to hold the leadership conferences begun in 1952 and by extensively promoting programs; that the NCNW sponsor at least two meetings per year with national affiliates to ensure greater participation and cooperation; and that the council build a strong public relations program. After twenty-two years of operation under three administrations, the NCNW had built a solid base of credibility, had developed an extensive network of contacts and supporters, and had created a sound constitution and operational structure that could easily be amended and expanded. The organization still needed money and clearly defined program service areas.