Central High distinguished alum is a 'bridge builder'

Apr. 4--------

CHAMPAIGN — In the living room of a house built by her parents, Barbara Suggs Mason is surrounded by memories in the form of photographs and memorabilia.

Some are her parents', some are from the history of other Black Americans in Champaign County, but many are her own.

"I'll show you a picture of my kids," Suggs Mason says, but in this case, she isn't referring to her own children. "I was very proud of them."

It's a photo of a group of students outside of Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, their big smiles contrasting with their serious-looking chorale robes.

Suggs Mason was a music teacher, so when a group of kids wanted to start a gospel choir, she made it happen.

"We did it on Saturdays. I didn't get paid for doing it. I had a great time," she said.

After 37 years in education, Suggs Mason has plenty of memories and plenty of accomplishments.

The latest: on Friday, she'll be recognized as a Distinguished Alumna of Central High School by the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation.

Central made the award title, but Suggs Mason is an alumna of several Champaign schools: Marquette Elementary, Edison Junior High and, later, the University of Illinois for her master's and doctorate degrees.

Growing up on East White Street, a block away from her father's childhood home, was "great" for her and her siblings.

"We kind of ran the street," Suggs Mason said. "It was old-fashioned: We had the bricks, the brown bricks, and I still remember the milkman coming with the horse and delivering milk in the '50s and '60s."

She remembers a big backyard full of fruit trees, other kids to play with in the neighborhood and her elementary school and church within walking distance.

Hester and Gene Suggs encouraged their children to explore, and Suggs Mason took full advantage of the opportunity, taking up violin and ballet.

"I was really into the arts and really into history," she said.

In high school, she joined orchestra and the Madrigals and drama, where she could never get lead roles but often played a lead's best friend — interracial casting just didn't happen in those days.

A humanities class that covered everything from Machiavelli to filmmaking helped prepare Suggs Mason for college, but there was a problem.

"I always secretly wanted to go into music. I don't think my parents wanted me to do that."

She did it anyway.

"I'm really a shy person, I'm kind of nerdy, but performing gave me a different lift in terms of being able to communicate with an audience," Suggs Mason said.

Suggs Mason went to Northwestern University to study music, but her dad encouraged her to get a teaching certificate as well, which he reminded her of during her later success as an educator.

Even so, she didn't end up in music or teaching right away: She spent a year-and-a-half working at her cousin's advertising agency.

Cullers Agency was the first Black advertising agency in the United States.

Suggs Mason helped out with ad campaigns for companies like Pizza Hut and Kellogg's and met up-and-coming celebrities like Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid.

Her next step was to pursue her master's in music education at the UI, where she remembers performing in the opera "Porgy and Bess" despite initial concerns about the characters being stereotypical.

"We took it to Lake George, New York, that summer for their opera festival," Suggs Mason said. "That was a great experience and that kind of solidified the fact that I did really want to perform."

But that didn't work out right away; instead, she took a teaching contract at Oak Park Elementary School.

"Oak Park was a great place to work. I call it 'the deep bench' because everybody was so talented," Suggs Mason said.

She was the only Black member of the music faculty.

"I used to laugh because they didn't realize they were doing this, but every time they would mention something that had to do with race, they would all turn and look at me," Suggs Mason said.

At the same time, she kept up with voice lessons and auditions.

Six years later, she traveled to take a summer program at the American Institute for Musical Studies in Graz, Austria, where she tried to get work in an opera house, but eventually realized she didn't want to stay in Europe.

"This woman, who was close to 40, she was sitting at the stop of the steps crying because she's over there auditioning, so she couldn't be at her 9-year-old's birthday party," Suggs Mason said. "And I thought 'I don't want that to be my life.'"

Back in the states, Suggs Mason started to think she could make music work alongside teaching.

"What I really came back with as I went back into education was I really wanted to motivate kids to see the world outside of their little space and to help them grow globally," she said. "I came back with that energy and I think I kept it the rest of my education career."

She was once again teaching music at Oak Park and working on a committee that was looking into reorganizing the district into middle schools when an opening came up for an "innovation coordinator for middle level education."

Suggs Mason applied and was selected; it was her first job in the education system outside of being a teacher.

"I really began to focus in on kind of the larger, bigger picture of how we educate kids," she said. "Junior high was probably my worst time when I went to school and I wanted it to be better for those kids."

She encouraged "exploratory" classes where kids could learn about computers or manufacturing on top of what they could practice in shop classes.

Suggs Mason was involved in committees that created the Percy Julian and Gwendolyn Brooks middle schools in Oak Park, all while starting the doctoral program at the UI and studying educational leadership.

"I wasn't really thinking about ever becoming a superintendent, much less a principal," she said, but her mentor, Oak Park Superintendent Jack Fagan, told her she should head that way.

After applying around for a while, she was given the principal position at Sieden Prairie Elementary in Matteson.

Suggs Mason was one of several new administrators in the district, who all formed a coalition to improve scores.

They did, and six years later she became the district's first Black superintendent.

Her team built Colin Powell Middle School, raised scores by 22 percent and watched graduates go on to become Fulbright and Obama scholars, among other achievements.

"There were challenges, definitely. You always heard a somebody say, 'We need a man to do this,'" Suggs Mason said. "Of course, I didn't believe that. I'm a bridge builder."

Even back in high school, Suggs Mason had to build bridges in a fairly segregated community, and she was always pushing to help people see "the vision," inspired by watching her mother work as Booker T. Washington Elementary's principal.

More than anything, she saw challenges sourced from the politics of education, which she says have only become more apparent since the pandemic.

Suggs Mason was retired by that time, but has become a mentor to other superintendents.

Her plan after retirement was to take care of her mother, but Hester Suggs died just a few months later.

"We were sitting here in the living room and my one cousin Cecilia said, 'Well, what are you going to do now?'"

Suggs Mason didn't know.

"She said, 'Why don't you finish your dissertation?'"

That led Suggs Mason to petition to get back into the UI and finally earn her doctorate, which she said was one of the proudest moments of her life.

She ended up centering her dissertation on the experiences of Black women superintendents.

During the time she was petitioning, the UI was preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary, and the chancellor's office was seeking local sources to help with a video about the housing situation for Black students in the earlier part of its history.

Back then, Black students weren't allowed to live on campus and had to find other options, which led to a network of local families who would open up their homes.

Suggs Mason's mother, aunt and uncle all attended during that time, and her grandmother "saved everything."

Suggs Mason and her cousin, Angela Rivers, both helped out with the video.

A few years later, Experience Champaign-Urbana President Jayne DeLuce started looking for some local people to provide historical and cultural perspective for the development of the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail.

DeLuce knew that Suggs Mason's family had a long history in the area and saw her and Rivers in the UI video.

"That really struck me at the time," DeLuce said. "I said, 'How many other stories are there about our community that we don't know?'"

Suggs Mason was one of the first people she reached out to while working on the trail.

"When she first heard, you know, that you have a White woman trying to start development of an African American Heritage trail, she asked a lot of questions before she'd be involved," DeLuce recalled. "I respect that and I appreciated that, because it wasn't my story to tell; it wasn't our story to tell at Experience Champaign-Urbana. It was for the community to tell this story."

Suggs Mason made Experience C-U promise that it would not only create the trail, but would continue to maintain it, because she had previously seen other historical projects go by the wayside over time.

Since retiring and finishing her doctorate, Suggs Mason said a lot of her time has been spent behind a laptop just working on information for the trail, but that's selling it a little bit short.

"These are untold stories," DeLuce said, because Black history usually didn't appear in the pages of newspapers or other publicly-available sources.

Instead, Suggs Mason and the rest of the team had to gather their data word-of-mouth or from scrapbooks and memorabilia much like what her own parents left behind.

DeLuce has gotten to know Suggs Mason well throughout all of this work and thinks incredibly highly of her, calling her funny, educated and direct.

"She has taught me a lot about standing up for yourself, standing up for your family, your community and having a sense of community pride," DeLuce said. "Her impression on me is that it's our job to help the youth see themselves in their own history, in their family's history, in their community's history, to create a pride so that they will have ownership of that community for the future."

All of this, and her awareness of some of the challenges Suggs Mason faced, led Deluce to nominate Suggs Mason for the CUSF Distinguished Alumnus award.

Suggs Mason will be honored alongside her fellow nominees at 6 p.m. on Friday at the I Hotel.