Spotlight on: CRRJ Program Coordinator, Charlotte Mathews-Nelson
Ms. Charlotte Mathews-Nelson, program coordinator for the Center for Law, Equity and Race (CLEAR), has spent more than 40 years pursuing racial equity. Involved in national and grassroots activism, dedicated to advancing economic and educational opportunities for Black Boston, she continues to serve as an integral member of CRRJ.
But her activism began long before her move to Massachusetts in the 1960s.
Born during the Jim Crow era in Jefferson County, Florida, near the Georgia state-line, Mathews-Nelson’s family moved to Dade County when she was a child.
“At that time everything was totally segregated, especially in the South. And when I say segregated, I mean the hardest kind,” Mathews-Nelson told CRRJ in a recent interview.
“Everything was segregated, from parks to graveyards, schools to hospitals, everything.”
Her mother, Gertrude Mathews, became involved with neighborhood groups focused on attaining Black voting rights and “learning how to survive,” she said.
Her father, Henry Mathews, was an apprentice on an experimental farm at a university in Miami. One day, a colleague suggested he bring his children to Miami Beach, where the National Conference of Christians and Jews held family events.
“I think these interracial gatherings were supposed to diminish our anger and give us hope, that things could get better. That stayed with me,” said Mathews-Nelson.
The next life-defining moment Mathews-Nelson recalled was receiving a secondhand 8th grade textbook from a teacher. “That was when I found out how under-resourced the schools in my community were, as opposed to schools in wealthier, white communities,” she said. The textbook had been part of the 5th grade curriculum in a white-only school in Miami Beach.
“My education in the South was equal to a student entering junior high school in Boston, that’s how far behind our education was,” said Mathews-Nelson.
Despite these challenges, she graduated high school and was sent away from home to care for an aunt in Brockton, Massachusetts. “My parents packed me up and sent me north and I never looked back,” she said.
It was upon leaving the South that Mathews-Nelson clearly understood, for the first time, the full extent of the societal racial prejudices she would spend her life battling against.
“I went to business school to get some skills, to get a job. I earned my certificate for business and started searching for a job,” she said. “I came across the same type of issue that I’d faced in the South.”
Mathews-Nelson interviewed for a position as a bookkeeper at a military uniform supplier, only to be told “flatly to my face that they weren’t ready to hire anyone Black in the administrative office. So, I took a job pressing uniforms, that was the only position they could offer me at that time, they said.”
Rather than accept this fate, however, “that just really gave me more energy to get involved in the NAACP,” said Mathews-Nelson.
Her lifelong affiliation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP) began in the 1960s, with an invitation from a family friend to join the Brockton chapter. She was offered an interim role as the chapter’s assistant secretary, before joining the Boston chapter when she moved to the city in the 1970s. Here she was involved in many of the NAACP’s operations, including those designed to help young Black students earn internships and enter college.
“I initiated a program called ‘The Management Internship Training Program’ and Northeastern University was a key supplier,” she said. Mathews-Nelson recruited students from local colleges and supported them in their internship applications, most often to positions at Northeastern University.
In the early 1980s, Mathews-Nelson brought the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics to Boston. This is a national program designed to recruit and foster high academic and cultural achievement among Black high school students.
She has also served as the NAACP’s New England Area Conference president for five consecutive terms, overseeing branches in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
She remained a full-time NAACP employee until she began working at Northeastern in 1979. “I’ve never stopped working with the NAACP,” said Mathews-Nelson. “I say I’ve had two jobs my entire life, for 40 plus years with the NAACP.” She remains an advisor to the NAACP.
Mathews-Nelson began her career at Northeastern first at the graduate school of education, then in the university’s Executive Vice President’s office of strategic planning, before her longest posting at Career and Employment Services. While working at the university, she attended night-school and earned her BS in business administration.
She arrived at the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, May 5, 2022, a day she remembers clearly.
“I knew Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ’s director, from my work at the NAACP. She said they needed someone on their administrative team and I was welcome to come over,” said Mathews-Nelson.
At CRRJ she supports CLEAR Director Dr. Deborah Jackson, and helps CRRJ organize their many conferences, workshops and events. Perhaps most critically, Mathews-Nelson is responsible for many of the vital connections CRRJ has with internal and external organizations and the wider civil rights community.
“I’m on the research side of it now,” said Mathews-Nelson. “I’m learning more about the history of why these inequities have happened to us as a people for all these years. It gives credence to my activism, so it’s very satisfying.”
When she’s not working on a project for CRRJ or the NAACP, Mathews-Nelson is spreading her activism throughout the Northeastern campus. “I’ve brought my activism from the outside to campus as much as I could. I’ve been connected to a lot of the DEI initiatives for Northeastern, and with any type of activity linked with equity paths for African Americans at Northeastern,” she said.
She has served as co-chair of the Black Faculty and Staff Association, a DEI affinity group which she says has evolved over the years but whose impact she is immensely proud of. “Northeastern is hiring many more African American women in leadership positions now. I would still like to see a few more in key administrative roles at the decision-making level, but there’s always work to be done.”
Mathews-Nelson was among 69 civil rights leaders whose work and legacies were honored at the unveiling of “The Embrace,” a memorial to Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common, at the start of the year.
When asked about seeing her name in the flagstone beneath the statue, Mathews-Nelson said, “It was bittersweet because a lot of those people I worked with are no longer with us, including my husband.”
Leon T. Nelson was the founder of the Greater Roxbury Chamber of Commerce, former president of the Boston NAACP, director of the NAACP’s National Conventions, and administrator with Freedom House and ABCD, Inc. Her late husband was also a former basileus of Gamma Phi Chapter, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Boston, and member of the Prince Hall Masons.
He made it his life’s work to put community and Black people first, and his commitment to advancing civil rights for Black Boston made a pivotal mark on this city’s history, said Mathews-Nelson.
She described her marriage as “a union of civil rights and social justice,” and together they have one daughter and one grandson.
“I whispered a little prayer when I read the inscription on the memorial,” said Mathews-Nelson. “It’s utterly ridiculous to read about all the hate and inequities in 2023, issues we thought we were rid of after 1965. I hope that those who see the statue pick up the gauntlet and continue to move the movement forward.”
But she isn’t ready to sit back and let others fight on alone.
“I have no plans to slow down,” she said, drawing inspiration from her contemporaries. She said she looks at the examples set by Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, 91, former NAACP president and the recipient of this year’s prestigious NAACP Spingarn Medal, and Marvin Gilmore, 99, a World War II veteran and former president and CEO of the Community Development Corporation of Boston.
“I look at people like that and I turn inward and think about how long I’ve been doing this, the return on my investment, where we are today and how much more needs to be done,” said Mathews-Nelson, “and I say no way can I walk away. I’ve got to find some way to hang in there.”
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