Audrey Ann Hoffman Lawson, civic leader, civil rights activist, and “First Lady Emeritus” of historic Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, was born on March 20, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri, to John Henry and Alma Hoffman. She attended elementary and secondary schools in St. Louis and went to Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville, Tennessee, where she graduated with a B.A. degree in social work. During her time at TSU Nashville, Audrey Hoffman began a long-distance correspondence with a former student of TSU, William “Bill” Lawson, a graduate student who was attending Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas. Lawson had established a reputation for writing letters to the young ladies of Tennessee State University. Many of the young ladies took delight in reading William Lawson’s letters, but none of them would respond. Audrey Ann Hoffman’s perception of Lawson’s letters was different from the other female students in her dormitory. She read his letters with curiosity and accepted a challenge from the other girls who dared her to respond. Audrey and William exchanged letters from September 1952 to January 1954. They met face to face eight times before their marriage on January 30, 1954. Years later their correspondence of more than 600 letters was digitized and featured in the Houston Area Digital Archives of the Houston Public Library as a three-volume set entitled “Love Letters: The Courtship of Little Red and The Pin.” “Little Red” was William Lawson’s nickname for his wife Audrey.
After Audrey Lawson graduated from TSU, she moved back home to St. Louis and obtained employment with the YMCA. In 1955 the Lawsons moved to Houston, Texas, where Bill Lawson had accepted a job at Texas Southern University as a chaplain and professor of religious studies. Audrey Lawson began employment as a social worker for the Negro Child Center (which was founded by Clarence and Anna Dupree), an orphanage for black youth. She worked in the department called the Vocational Guidance Center. By this time, Audrey Lawson had given birth to three of their four children—Melanie, Cheryl, and Eric. Following the birth of their fourth child Roxanne, Rev. William Lawson and Audrey, at the urging of some Texas Southern University students who were attending Bill’s chapel sessions at the Baptist Student Union, established a church in their living room in 1962. These humble beginnings represented the start of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
Audrey Lawson’s passion for the education and active social engagement of children and youth in the inner city motivated her to organize both a Girls and Boys Scout Troop in the church. A short time later she helped organize a preschool, infant care center, and the Wheeler Avenue Children’s Academy. The Lawsons were very involved with the students of Texas Southern who were passionate about the national civil rights movement headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and numerous other civil rights leaders and organizations. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Audrey and Rev. William Lawson hosted Reverend King in their home and worked closely with him and other community activists to implement a smooth transition from segregation to desegregation in Houston public schools, transportation, and stores.
The community activism of Audrey Lawson extended beyond the walls of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church to the Houston Ensemble Theater, established in 1976 by George Hawkins as a nonprofit cultural arts center to highlight and preserve African American artistic expression through critically-acclaimed dramas, comedies, and musicals. When Watkins fell ill and the Ensemble was in dire need of operating capital, Audrey Lawson spearheaded a fundraising drive that helped save the historic Houston Midtown icon. Before her death, she was named Chair Emeritus of the board of directors for the Ensemble Theater.
Audrey Lawson developed the idea for establishing the Lawson Academy, a charter school for middle-school-aged inner-city boys. Established in 2002, this program was founded by the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity at Texas Southern University and was expanded to include a girls’ school in 2011. Lawson was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the Sojourner Truth Award from the Houston League of Business and Professional Women. In 2014 she was honored with the NAACP Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award.
Audrey Ann Hoffman Lawson passed away at her home in Houston on December 12, 2015; she was eighty-three years old. Her husband, along with their oldest daughter Melanie Lawson, a well-known local news anchor for KTRK Channel 13 Eyewitness News, offered tributes to her life and legacy. The city of Houston, especially its Third Ward community, celebrated her life and mourned her passing. She was buried in the Williams Family Cemetery in Maynard, Texas.