Natalie Lorraine Hamlar Mason, one of the 'Mothers of Civil Rights' in Mississippi, was a force to be reckoned with in the Mississippi movement of human rights. Her quiet, tenacious pursuit of equity, and patient, determined support were often the backbone of the work undertaken by Dr. Mason, enabling him to reach great heights, while also making great strides in her own right.
Early Life and Education
She was born the seventh of nine children of Robert and Maud Smith Hamlar on March 26, 1927 in Roanoke, Virginia, and enjoyed a vibrant and loving family life. Her father was a respected Brakeman on the railroad, affording his children greater opportunities in their community: the strike he and fellow "Negro" railroad workers enacted made greater equity possible, and paved the way for civil rights inroads across industries. Her mother Maud, a former schoolteacher, always put education first; all nine children later became college graduates, a remarkable feat for the era.
A bright student with a fierce commitment to excelling in school, Natalie graduated from Harrison Elementary, where she was in the Girl Scouts, and Lucy Addison High School in Roanoke, where she was active in many clubs and organizations and served as Homecoming Queen before graduation in 1945.
She initially matriculated at Tennessee State University, where she met her future spouse, Gilbert Rutledge Mason, during the first few weeks of freshman year. Transferring to enter a more competitive program at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she received her Bachelor's Degree in Psychology with honors in 1949, as well as a Master's in Social Work from Howard University in 1951.
In spring 1947, she also pledged the Alpha chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an organization she cherished throughout her life.
She and Gilbert married in her parent's backyard on July 29, 1950, and their only child, Gilbert Jr., was born in 1954.
Career and Community Activism
After moving to Biloxi in 1955, Mrs. Mason was instrumental in establishing her husband's practice, as well as running a pharmacy and laundromat together for several years.
She later became the first black social worker hired by the Veterans Administration in the state of Mississippi. She came on board in 1968 and worked in the Gulfport and Biloxi divisions for 17 years, retiring after a serious heart attack in 1985.
She was also an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern Mississippi, and was instrumental in creating the program, as well as advocating for both an undergraduate and graduate program.
As a member of the community of social workers on the Gulf Coast, she was active in establishing both the Head Start branches and the Community Action Agency of Harrison County, and was integral to the creation of the STAR program.
She was a charter and life member of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP. She served as the neighborhood chairwoman and unit captain of the Bayou Auguste homes chapter of the Girl Scouts in the early 1960's, and served as vice president of the Harrison County Young Democrats Club in 1966.
Also in 1966, Mrs. Mason became a charter member and served as the inaugural president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Over her three decade involvement with the organization, she served as president, secretary and treasurer, and spearheaded projects such as the restoration of the Pleasant Reed House, which opened for tours in December 1982. (The original house was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. A replica now stands on the grounds of the George Ohr Museum of Art.) She also was heavily involved in the implementation of the GIRLS First program.
Mrs. Mason also served on the board of directors of the Harrison County Mental Health Association as secretary throughout the 1970's, and was on the board of trustees of the state Department of Youth Services and the board of Mississippi Training Schools.
She served a number of years as the chair of the finance committee and program chair of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP and also began the Black History Month program run by the local chapter, as well as the Coastwide Community Celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
She was honored in 1976 as social worker of the year by the Gulf Coast chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. In 1977, she served as a Mississippi delegate for the nationwide conference for International Women's Year after serving as a member of the state coordinating committee. She was commissioned by the U.S. Department of State to the conference coordinating committee, along with two other Mississippians, and was the only delegate selected from the Gulf Coast.
Upon retirement, Mrs. Mason threw herself into further charity work, and devoted more time to her faith home, First Missionary Baptist Church. She served as a Sunday School teacher, the director of the Vacation Bible School program, and spearheaded the coordination of many other church programs. She took more time to attend conferences nationally that would allow her to expand her community programs and initiatives, and expanded the Coastwide Community Celebration for Dr. King's birthday greatly, adding more schools and facets to the program. She also served as a sounding board for burgeoning social workers at USM, helping them to find a place in the post-graduate world.