Tag Archives: California

Creating Legacy: Biddy Mason

November 17th, 2016

biddy

I had a reoccurring dream for 5 consecutive years, which took place in Los Angeles starting and stopping in exactly the same place each time. I always awoke shaking my head and thinking, What is that––why do I keep dreaming of black women dressed like Southern Slaves, in the early years of Los Angeles? There weren’t even black people back in early California. But I was more than wrong.

Late one night while browsing an online photo archive, I stumbled upon an exact image from my dream. It was dated 1857. A gathering of black women dressed in similar fashion to southern plantation slaves, were sitting on the front porch of a single story wooden house located on what is now San Pedro Street. I paid attention. So began my journey into the history of the women of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, and led me to Biddy Mason, former slave of African and Native American heritage, mother, healer, midwife, wealthy-businesswoman philanthropist, landowner, and not least, the founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (the first black church in Los Angeles.)

As I began to explore the history of this powerful woman, I was repeatedly struck by the fact that although I had been born and educated in Los Angeles, neither I nor any of my friends had ever been made aware of her. Indeed, the recognition of the place of women in the development of the city of Los Angeles (El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, the City of the Queen of Angels) has been historically relegated to secondary status. This is reflected even in the name change from the city’s original name, by dropping the Queen out of the name of the city. As a sign of the times, this particular woman was destined to be a powerful force of vital change in the lives of many, even as the world she traveled through was itself experiencing a time of extreme tumultuous and violent change. In 1849 during the transition from Mexican to American rule, the state of California decreed itself free of slavery, and in 1850, was admitted into the Union.  Ironically, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed later that very same year––a definite nod to Southern sympathies.

Among the first, Robert Smith, a recent convert to the Mormon Faith, brought his slaves Biddy Mason, her three daughters, her sister Hannah and her children, across the continent by Ox Train to live in a Mormon community in San Bernardino. However, as the “anti-slavery” sentiment in California grew, he decided to leave for the slave state of Texas. He must have thought himself mad as he watched free black men ride as equals alongside white posse members, when they swooped into his canyon camp in the Santa Monica Mountains late one night, and rescued the women and children; the sheriff took them off into protective custody. By the time Bridget Biddy Mason arrived in el Pueblo in 1855, there was already a black community; some having migrated from deep southern, slave holding states, to the apparent freedom of California. Although the slave trade of Native peoples was in full force, there was a population of free black men, many having descendants traceable to Africans in Mexico in the 1530’s. As my research was revealing, I had been so wrong!

Biddy Mason and her family were granted their freedom in January 1856, and in another twist of time and fate, won their freedom by the skin of their teeth, as the Dred Scott Decision was passed in 1857 in which…” the Supreme Court decided that all people of African ancestry — slaves as well as those who were free––could never become citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in federal court. The court also ruled that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories…” The egregious injustice of this period in history is once again illuminated by the fact that, although Biddy Mason could petition for her freedom and be present at her trial, after 1850 there was a law forbidding Native Indians, Blacks, and Mulattoes from testifying against a white person in civil or criminal cases. However, precedent had been set in el Pueblo in the 1840’s by the rancheras, women who were the original land grantees. These were women who owned substantial land, and therefore had the key to economic independence, putting them on an equal business footing with the men of their time. Whether through direct land grants, marriage or inheritance, this allowed them to engage in business: investing, selling, loaning, or using their land as collateral. As a black woman in the 1850’s Biddy’s rise to social prominence and financial power was unprecedented. She created a paradigm shift by shrewdly parlaying her immense skills as a healer and a midwife, into a business empire equivalent to those most successful landholding business leaders of Los Angeles… Although neither Biddy nor her ranchera predecessors could read, write, or defend themselves or their interests in a court of law, they were astute enough to engage the powerful men of the time to defend them and speak on their behalf.

It is almost impossible to understand the scope of the legacy that Biddy Mason created, and it might read like somewhat of a “fairytale” if the particulars were not so overwhelmingly grim. The improbable circumstances she endured are all but unimaginable; from slave-life on the plantation, she literally trekked across the continent with her own small children, ultimately having the temerity to stand up and claim herself a free black woman in a white America about to be torn apart by the Civil War. Yet she did it, as did many of the rancheras, and other women who came before and long after her. Although women still struggle to attain equality in an historically patriarchal society, honoring and acknowledging those of enormous personal power who have come before us is a crucial step towards making things right in the future.

Biddy Mason remains one of my personal heroines. From a dream sent to me from our collective past, I feel it is essential to share her history, as one of our city’s fundamental foundation stones, inspiring us to do more, and to be more. I believe this history, the city’s history is especially timely for Los Angeles right now, as it reminds us that there is great strength and wisdom which comes from moving steadfastly forward with conviction, an open mind, and an open heart.

  1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2932.html

winston_jeannie

Jeannie Winston is a frequent guest blogger for ACEI’s Academic Exchange. Jeannie is an artist and writer living and working in Los Angeles, California. Jeannie completed undergraduate studies in Illustration at The Arts Center of Pasadena, California.   Her vast and intricate knowledge of Los Angeles and its cultural history bring a new perspective to our understanding of the City of Angels. She draws her inspiration from the natural and inhabited world around her. She is especially inspired by her observations of cultural fusions and how people strive to invoke spirit in daily life.

(El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, the City of the Queen of Angels.)

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Ranch of the Gathering Waters: The Other History of Beverly Hills

10/27/16

gatheringwaters

I was amazed to discover that the first owner of what is now known as Beverly Hills was a Black Woman. I had grown up in Beverly Hills during a time when a lone black man walking down the street was enough to summon the magical appearance of the B.H.P.D. Her name was María Rita Quintero Valdés de Villa, the descendent of one of the original 44 Pobladores or settlers of the City of the Queen of Angels, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles Sobre El Rio de la Porciúncula), what we now know as Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, 26 of the original founding settlers were full-blooded Africans.

When colonial Spain got nervous about the encroaching presence of the Russians coming down the coast of Alta California from the Pacific Northwest, they decided to buttress their territory, Nuevo España, New Spain, securing the border by colonizing the lands in the north. In 1769, an expeditionary force led by Gaspar de Portola was sent out, and from the vantage point of what is now Elysian Park, spied an “advantageous” site, which was the Native American Tongvan village of Yangna.  El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles was founded on September 4, 1781, and according to Mexican laws and those of the Spanish Crown, each of Los Pobladores were awarded approximately 1 Sitio each, approximately 4,400 acres. Señor Juan Quintero Valdés, was one of the original expeditionary soldiers in the Portola Party, claimed his rightful plot, Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, Ranch of the Gathering Waters. It was named for the streams that emptied into the area from out of the canyons above; Cañada de las Aguas Frias (Glen of the Cold Waters, now Coldwater Canyon) and Cañada de los Encinos (Glen of the Green Oaks, now Benedict Canyon).

María Rita Quintero Valdés married Spanish soldier, Vicente Ferrer Villa and eventually built an adobe in present day Beverly Hills, approximately on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Alpine Drive. She received the Rancho title from the Mexican government in 1831.

Rancho Rodeo de los Aquas was a fruitful plain, fed by the waterfalls coming down the canyons and because of this, had an extremely unique micro climate where plants and livestock thrived. However, times were difficult and volatile. By 1844 the initial contact with the Spanish had virtually wiped out the Native populations of Tongvas and Gabrielinos due to repeated abuse and slavery both in and out of the Mission System, followed by a virulent smallpox epidemic. As their numbers alarmingly dwindled, the Native peoples routinely launched incursions into the fertile ranch lands for food and livestock. Then in 1846 President James K. Polk, launched el Guerra del 47 (The War of 1847), and a US Marine force led by military commander Archibald H. Gillespe invaded the Pueblo de Los Angeles. This sparked a popular uprising of the Californios, who launched a vaquero lancer force led by José Antonio Carrillo and Andrés Pico. Ultimately, the invaders were chased out of their occupied headquarters in The Plaza and fled to the hill overlooking the square (Fort Moore Hill) where they eventually surrendered, but not before the women of El Pueblo took their revenge. Native, Mexican and Californios, after having witnessed the degradation of their men and the rape of their daughters, decided on a final act of defiance and offered the departing Gillespie and his troops baskets of peaches which had been rolled in cactus needles.

Following the Euro-American victory, Mexico ceded a large portion of its northern lands, upon the conditions drawn up in the 1857 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which provided that all the original land grants be honored. As required by the Land Act of 1851, a claim for Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas was filed with the Public Land Commission in 1852, but it was not until 1871, that María Rita Quintero Valdés de Villa was finally awarded the grant. Prior to the invasion, María Rita had also built a home within the boundaries of El Pueblo on land she had to foresight to acquire, located on current day Main Street.  This would later become the well-known center of social and political life in El Pueblo, the Bella Union Hotel, the very one Commodore Robert Stockton “commandeered” as the American headquarters during the war.  In her haste to flee the pueblo, Maria Rita neglected to take the original papers of ownership issued by the Mexican government, and they were subsequently “lost.”  Sadly, this was a common story for many original rancho claimants from the Mexican era trying to retain their land, and many had to mortgage their properties trying to prove ownership title under the new American laws and “tax codes.” The land grab was on.

As part of the Public Land Commission rulings in 1852, Henry Hancock did a second survey of el Pueblo based on partitioning the vacant ejidos, or municipal lands into larger lots. These became known as “Donation Land.” One could acquire the land for a nominal fee of $10, along with property “improvements” of $200. One could either build a small adobe, or plant fruit trees or gardens or all of these. The land had to yield a value. Word had traveled across the country and wealthy eastern Euro-Americans began to flock to the land of sunshine and promise, grabbing as much land as they could. One of the ways this was accomplished was by marrying widowed California women, and thus cementing status and place in the growing town.

Henry Hancock, grew to know good land value when he drew up the second survey and thus,   along with his business partner Benjamin Wilson, eventually purchased Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas from María Rita. She knew a thing about land values herself, as the great drought of 1862-1865 hit and wiped out previously thriving cattle and agricultural businesses.

María Rita retired to her property in the center of el Pueblo, on La Plaza, and lived out her days amongst other California women and descendants. Sadly, the Native American women of the region had all but been wiped out, and those remaining, fled into the interior. The sacred and fertile Tongva site of the gathering waters had slowly all but dried up, and would take years to recover. To this day the only remaining nod to its former glory, is the fountain at the corner intersection of Wilshire (a former Indian Trail) and Santa Monica Boulevards, which features a loin-clothed Tongvan man kneeling as he offers his hands in a prayer of thanks for the abundant flowing waters. 

winston_jeannie

Jeannie Winston is a frequent guest blogger for ACEI’s Academic Exchange.  Jeannie is an artist and writer living and working in Los Angeles, California. Jeannie completed undergraduate studies in Illustration at The Arts Center of Pasadena, California.   Her vast and intricate knowledge of Los Angeles and its cultural history bring a new perspective to our understanding of the City of Angels. She draws her inspiration from the natural and inhabited world around her. She is especially inspired by her observations of cultural fusions and how people strive to invoke spirit in daily life.

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3 Things I’ve Learned as a Transglobal Pilgrim

October 3rd, 2013

Transglobal

Learning by doing is one of the most powerful, and rewarding ways to enter into another culture. I studied the French language for 12 years before finally going to France, and it was there that the desire to “become French,” overwhelmed me. As an avid people watcher, I love to observe body language, gesture, facial expressions, and attitude. So, I perfected the art of mimic. I returned to the states and studied the language for another 3 years and when I could afford it, I took vacations in French speaking lands–– islands being my favorite.

Growing up in Los Angeles I also fell in love with the Mexican culture. It is inescapable in terms of cultural celebrations, holidays, and the coming and goings of daily life. As far as I am concerned, it is a necessity to learn to speak Spanish if you live in L.A. Of course you can stay on the surface, and observe others from afar, but what fun is that? To fully experience life in the multitude of Spanish speaking populations of the city, you have to do some cultural shape shifting.

I have found that my eagerness to relate is always well received and it opens up doorways to completely new and fascinating worlds hidden just under the surface of daily life. Ones that can make the most mundane trip to the corner store a richly rewarding experience.

I have only lived in Germany for about two years now, and I am trying to learn by doing, but I have not tried to mimic this time. I absolutely refuse to raise my voice 5 octaves when given the customary ciao––Tschüsss! Grown men over 25 go completely falsetto when saying it. Everyone does.

I do admit to a language deficit, but I always start off by saying, “Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut, Ich komme aus Kalifornien,“ my German is not so good, I come from California. By looking at me they just assume I am German, and they get a funny look on their face when I try complicated sentences, poorly. So, I’ve found that by offering an explanation up front, things usually go quite well from that point on. The Kalifornien always breaks the ice. The more fluent I become, of course the more I learn about how life here works. Here are three important things I have learned about my new land.

1. Taxi Cab Ride

The taxi cab driver that came to take us to my husband’s first doctor’s visit, post hip-replacement surgery, recently had a knee replacement himself. He came from Turkey a number of years ago, and spoke flawless German. I listened to the best of my ability as the two men exchanged stories and chatted in the front seat. It slowly came out that they had been at the same, quite famous Orthopedic Hospital for their surgery and recovery.

In addition, in Germany, everyone stays in the hospital for two weeks of monitoring and the beginning of physical therapy/ rehabilitation. The insurance companies pay, knowing they will still make a profit, because two weeks in the hospital in Germany is still cheaper than a second, more complicated surgery. It has been shown that 2 weeks of post-operative care, lowers the recidivism for most surgeries.

Wow–– It astonished me to learn that costs are structured, and social thinking dictates that absolutely everyone can get great care, and be given the exact same physical therapy and rehab, and go to one of the many “Wellness/ Rehab” centers throughout the German countryside.

On top of it, imagine that the Taxi Company in Bremen allows this recuperative time, and with full pay! Of course there are those who are privat versichert, those that pay for “Private Health Insurance” versus the Government mandated insurance everyone must have, the gesetzliche Krankenversicherung.

The privat patients do get priority with doctor’s appointments and surgery schedules, because the doctors and institutions make more money off them, and know they will always be paid without tedious Insurance Carrier negotiations.

The last time I was in New York I learned that the taxi cab drivers in the city all own and are responsible for their own cars, which was news to me, and I am sure that the Senegalese driver who told us that, did not have the opportunity to get the same medical treatment as his Turkish counterpart in Germany. I am pretty sure he did not get paid rehabilitation for a month in the countryside or a city clinic.
In Los Angeles, the taxi drivers are often educated professionals, immigrants from other countries. They are classically trained musicians, doctors and dentists from the Ukraine, Iran, India, or you name it. I am pretty sure that they also don’t have the opportunities for care that the taxi drivers in Germany have.

2. Ticket Revenue

Cities get inventive when it comes time to collect more revenue. In Los Angeles the car is still the dominant mode of transportation, however, the city is installing a very much needed rail system. The last time I was in Los Angeles, I took the first chance I could to ride the rail between Culver City and Exposition Park. I got a TAP card and happily passed on the traffic jams, and cost of driving and the exorbitant cost of parking. The Expo Line Phase 2, due to be completed by 2015, will connect Downtown Los Angeles and beyond, directly to the beach in Santa Monica. They still have to create an access system to get through the city to the Metro Rail Depots, but that will come. Check out the budding system : http://www.buildexpo.org/

But back to revenue. On the car dominant streets of Los Angeles, the costs vary; a jay-walking ticket – $191, a parking ticket-up to $68, a speeding ticket $210 and more, and let’s not talk about texting while driving.

First of all, Europeans would laugh in the face of police-person who tried to give them a jaywalking ticket, as it is done all the time. However, here, I am one of the few who cross against the light at a street corner! Everyone, waits for the light to turn green before walking, even when there are no cars around for city blocks.

Now that I live in a place with an amazing mass transit system, I have learned to never get caught trying to ride for free on the city trams, and definitely, not more than 3 times. Each violation costs 40 Euros and after the 3rd time it goes on record as a criminal offense. I remember thinking it was like our 3-Strikes Law in California. A bit over-the-top. The tram cost is 2,40 Euros one way for all destinations farther than 3 stops, so pretty much everyone pays, and the system runs great.

I know it costs more in Manhattan, something around $100 per offense. And the jury is still out in Los Angeles, as the whole inner-city rail concept is just now being brought back to life. At one time, Los Angeles had one of the most extensive light rail systems in the country, so I am sure the city will figure that out.

I learned by using the wrong, small piece of paper. I mistakenly used the receipt-for-the-purchase-paper (who knew?), paper-clipped together with the bunch of tickets my father-in–law had given me.

I stamped them in the machine inside the tram, as I had seen others do, and when the tram-police-guy came up and asked for my tickets, (the first and only time to date) I proudly handed him the stamped paperlet. He looked at them, gave a smug laugh, and told me they were Müll, trash. I was shocked, and tried to explain in my imperfect German that my father-in-law had given them to me, and I did not know the difference between them, so I did not think I used an invalid ticket.

It did not go over too well, trying to explain to him that I am not yet fluent with the language or the system. He asked how long I had been in Bremen and if I was a citizen. No, I am an American married to a German. Then he asked for my passport–– of course I didn’t have it. He did not like that answer, so I informed him I was a permanent resident and produced my card. He told me to learn German, and wrote me a ticket and admonished me not to develop a criminal record. Not fun. Public transport does not take kindly to fare evasion, it taxes everyone more.

Now that I am an immigrant, I just couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if I didn’t have my residency card…would it be something like not having your green card while Mexican in California? I think I will avoid that experiment.

3. The Market

Shopping for food is another way to begin assimilating into a new culture, and one that still comes with a bit of stress. In the markets, people are usually in a hurry, and everyone packs their own bags. There is no standing around while the checker or “bag-person” does it for you like in American markets, although we always packed our own bags in Los Angeles, much to the shock and appreciation of the clerk at the checkout stand. It seems only logical to help things move along.

In Germany it goes very fast, and between trying to pack my cloth bags, not break the eggs and translate in my head the amount the checker has just quoted me, I always break into a small sweat. Things can pile up quickly with the press of impatient shoppers breathing down your neck. You must learn to ignore them and pack with deftness and speed.

I remember the first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena on Arroyo Parkway in the 1970’, and until I moved to Germany I had no idea that it was bought by the German Aldi Nord Company, known here as Aldi. When I go to the Aldi discount market near us, I walk away with California Almond and California Walnut packages bearing the Trader Joe’s logo! However, I have to say, the Almonds are not as good as the California Almonds I get at the California Trader Joe’s. But it still makes me smile.

Buying food is different here. You absolutely have to go to the market every day, or every other day, max if you want to have fresh produce. The produce here does not last more than 2-3 days in the fridge. That is good on one hand, because you know with certainty that nothing has been done to prolong the freshness. It is bad on the other hand, because it takes more time, and is especially not fun in sub-zero temperatures to run out for lettuce and tomatoes.

Fresh Hummus here from the Turkish fruit and vegetable stand is utterly delicious and goes bad after two days, so I manage to eat it up. In the states, Hummus can last for a week in the fridge. Same goes for all dairy products.

Occasionally a piece of fruit, usually one out of season, will rot from the inside out. Aha! Evidence of being previously frozen. But I still prefer that to artificially prolonged food. I never understood why the Horizon Organic Half and Half lasted for a month? That just ain’t right.

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: jeanniewn@gmail.com

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