Helen Mason (1912-2003)
Inducted in 2015
Helen Katherine Mason’s vision and dedication opened new frontiers for youth of color and built bridges between races and ethnicities. Born December 28, 1912 in Phoenix, Helen was the oldest of five children. Three years before her birth, the Territorial Legislature passed a law allowing Arizona school districts to segregate African-Americans from students of other racial backgrounds. She grew up in a segregated city, separated from the white community in housing, restaurants, theaters, hotels, clubs and swimming pools.
She graduated from Phoenix Union Colored High School and soon moved to Los Angeles, California, where she attended the Frank Wiggins Trade School graduating as a cosmetologist.
She returned to Phoenix during World War II, married Carl Mason and raised five children. In 1958 she graduated with distinction from Arizona State University receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Recreation. She worked her way through the ranks and retired after 23 years of dedicated service. She was the first African-American Woman to reach the level of Supervisor within the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.
While working with the City of Phoenix, Helen discovered that African-American youth and adults were not receiving the same opportunities for cultural enrichment and expression as members of the white community. She soon became known for her innovative youth programs at East Lake Park where she held art, dance and theater classes for under-served youth. At the same time she was approached by a small group of inner-city students who loved to write and recite poetry. Together, they formed a group that provided the catalyst for what would later become the Back Theatre Troupe.
They soon began performing in parks, schools, community meetings and the Sydney P. Osborn Housing Project. Their popularity grew quickly and soon they began showcasing their talents for singing, acting and dancing. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and support from the black community, Helen founded the Black Theater Troupe in 1970 and became its first Executive Director. The theater was the first of its kind in the Four Corners area. Through Helen’s hard work, the Theater became an oasis in providing a much needed platform for showcasing cultural diversity through the performing arts and for giving a voice to the rich legacy that comes from people of color.
As a result of Helen’s dedication, she was instrumental in guiding the lives of hundreds of African-American youth in positive directions through music, art, dance and sports. The Black Theater Troupe continues her legacy conducting educational workshops and outreach programs that focus on low-income and under-served communities and provides opportunities for people of color to perform.