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
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.