November 17th, 2016
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.
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.)