HAMLET — Gloria Mask knew there was power in presence.
And she realized that the real power was consistency, showing up and riding the bus to Moral Monday marches in Raleigh; to NAACP executive committee meetings in Richmond County; to Hamlet City Council meetings and the swearing in of the first Black fire chief in Hamlet; protesting a potential poisonous landfill in Richmond County; or calling and writing Sen. Jesse Helms to remove the carcass of the Imperial Chicken Plant in Hamlet in 1992.
Always quick to volunteer and write a check, register voters, transport people to the polls, prepare food for a church rally or bear the rain for a Veterans Day celebration, Mask has been selected by the Richmond County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Foundation as the 2019 Trailblazer Award recipient for her dedication to the principles of fairness and equality — the benchmarks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence philosophy.
As this year’s honoree, Mask will serve as grand marshal of the MLK Commemorative Parade on Saturday and be presented the award at the staple luncheon on Monday, as well as be recognized at all of the weekend’s events.
So how did a big city girl who grew up in New Orleans end up in Hamlet?
“My music teacher, Oscela Blanche, had two daughters at Bennett College and encouraged me to come to Greensboro to study music. So my parents put me on a train bound for North Carolina, a state I had never visited,” Mask said.
Ultimately, Mask did her practice teaching in Hamlet and met Allen Green Mask, a local teacher who taught at Monroe Avenue High School. After he cooked a surprise dinner one night at the home of Vernetta Drew, where she boarded, they were married a few months later. The couple had three children, Dr. Allen Mask, Dr. William Kenneth Mask and Jeanne Mask/Horton.
Mask followed the tradition of her father-in-law, J.W. Mask, brother-in-law J.W. Mask Jr., and her husband in civil rights activism. She and her husband always carried three items in the trunk of their car: a card table, NAACP sign and a receipt book to collect NAACP memberships.
The Richmond County Branch of the NAACP had the distinction on several occasions of having the largest number of new members than any county in state due to their efforts. Any local crisis that required a warm body could count on the Masks.
“I remember she and my father sitting in the foyer of our house in front of an old manual typewriter, pecking out a letter to Senator Jesse Helms about the Imperial Chicken Plant (industrial fire that killed 25 due to locked exits) and creating a memorial to the people who had died there,” said Dr. Allen Mask. “Mom and Dad were quietly but consistently being the foot soldiers for justice. Whether it was advocating for students in the local school system, traveling to the NAACP state conventions and humanitarian banquets, attending sessions of the Hamlet City Council or the Richmond County School Board, they were always on the forefront of protest.”
“When I came to Richmond County 20 years ago as a reporter for the Daily Journal, Mrs. Mask took me under her wings and ensured I was aware and connected to local issues of social justice,” said Kimberly Harrington, a member of the Richmond County MLK Gala Committee.
“Still today, she calls to make sure I show up to certain meetings, that I write letters of support and that I lend my voice where necessary. She will not allow me to lull in my activism,” Harrington said. “Her energy and dedication is impressive, inspiring and infectious. Though humbled by this recognition, she is definitely worthy of this award during this special weekend.”
In 2000, Mask received the Richmond County NAACP President’s Award from Dr. Fred McQueen “for her continued support to this branch as co-chairperson of the Membership Committee.” She was recognized for a speech she gave at the N.C. General Assembly in 2001 to protest a hazardous waste dump in Richmond County, which was subsequently canceled.
She was also honored by the 8th District Black Leadership Caucus for 20-plus years of service. The Alpha Lambda Chapter of the Alpha Pi Chi Sorority, Inc. presented her the Outstanding Service Award in 2011 “in recognition of 50 years of dedication to the Debutante Cotillion and the sorority.” The sorority’s main focus is college scholarships for local high school graduates.
“I’m not sure why I am being recognized. There are plenty of other people who have done so much work who are more deserving,” Mask said. “I think what I have tried to do over the years is be a ‘constant.’ Much like a tortoise, I prefer to be slow and steady.”
It is slow and steady that wins the race, said Curtis Ingram, co-chair of the MLK Gala and Parade committees. “The MLK Celebration Foundation Steering Committee is honored to recognize Gloria Mask this year for her untiring and relentless service to our community. Legends like her are the wind beneath our wings.”