Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Charlotte van der Veer Quick Mason

1855-1945 / Philanthropist

The financial support of wealthy widow Charlotte Mason enabled leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance to stride the cultural stage, but she herself carefully shunned the limelight. To downplay her role in the movement, she insisted that recipients of her generosity refer to her simply as "Godmother."

After the death of her husband, Mason embarked on something of a spiritual quest. Imputing to African Americans a spiritual quality she found sadly lacking in white society, she grew fascinated by the heritage of those she deemed "primitives."

A lecture by scholar Alain Locke on the achievements of black artists spurred Mason to get involved in the New Negro movement. Locke and Mason forged a strong bond cemented by shared goals: Both sought to support and promote African-American culture. As Locke identified talent worthy of funding, Mason ponied up the cash.

When Locke introduced writer Zora Neale Hurston to Mason, the two women hit it off at once. Mason listened to Hurston's tales of Southern folklore with rapt attention. In December 1927, she drew up a contract that promised Hurston a car, a camera, and $200 per month to record black legends and folk songs throughout the South.

Support from Mason was not without strings. Artist Aaron Douglas, skeptical about her encouragement of "primitive elements" in artists' work, sometimes failed to meet her criteria and was asked to withdraw from major commissions. The poet Langston Hughes received $150 per month in exchange for informing Mason of everything he saw, said, did, or wrote. At Mason's urging, Hughes curtailed his social life to focus on his writing. The young man's recompense for such sacrifice was regular payments from Mason, as well as opera tickets and new suits.

Mason furnished the funds that enabled Hurston and Hughes to collaborate on the play Mule Bone, yet she chided the pair for what she saw as their lack of productivity. When Mason cut off her support of Hughes, Hurston claimed Mule Bone for her own. The two writers never bridged the ensuing rift.