Behind these Names, You’ll Find Stories of L.A.'S Black History

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tags: African American history, Los Angeles, public history

Oh, sure, now Los Angeles is a blue town, a liberal town, and one that rejoices in its diversity.

But it could’ve been a close call. Before the Civil War, half of L.A.’s Anglo residents were Southerners. In the 1860 presidential election here, Abraham Lincoln came in third. On the first Fourth of July of the war, someone hoisted the Confederate flag over the town’s central plaza. Three U.S. Army officers here resigned, left California and became Confederate generals; soon, members of a secret militia too had “gone to Dixie.” Had secession been put to a vote, Southern California would probably have joined the slave-holding Confederacy.

And to think that only 80 years before, Los Angeles was founded by 44 men, women and children who had been half-persuaded and half-prodded to come here from Mexico, and more than half of them had African ancestry.

So against that back story, this column for Black History Month, about new names for new times, launches with the life of an enslaved woman who in 1856 acquired a new life and a new name. She talked her way to freedom for herself and her family from a “master” who intended to drag them out of the free state of California to the slave state of Texas.

Bridget Mason, “Biddy,” born in the South in 1818, was a midwife and healer who shepherded Robert Smith’s vast household from Mississippi to Utah and in 1851 to San Bernardino. Free Black families who encountered her there may have clued her in about the legally free soil of California.

And in December 1855, the same free Black people may have tipped off the sheriff about the white man with 14 slaves hunkered down near Santa Monica Canyon, planning a getaway to Texas.

Around New Year’s Eve, sheriffs from two counties, along with some free Black men and their ranch hands, thundered down on Smith’s hideout with court writs and the force to back them up. Within two weeks, Biddy found herself in Judge Benjamin Hayes’ chambers, describing Smith’s duplicities — in chambers, because California law banned people of color from giving evidence openly against white people.

Hayes, like his L.A. townsmen, was a Southern sympathizer. His wife had owned slaves. But dura lex, sed lex — the law is hard, but it is the law — and the law in California forbade slavery. So boo-friggin’-hoo for Smith, who tried to fast-talk the court into believing that his slaves were really his “traveling companions.”

Biddy and her family were, Hayes ruled, “entitled to their freedom and are free forever.” (It took a civil war to make that come to pass for Black Americans in the South.)

The woman who had had no last name gave herself one: Mason. And with her earnings as a midwife and nurse, she parlayed $250 savings into a real estate empire that made her one of L.A.’s richest — and most generous-spirited — women. She died beloved and mourned, yet it took 97 years for a proper tombstone to mark her grave in the segregated section of Evergreen Cemetery. Her story is vividly told on 81 feet of panels in Biddy Mason Memorial Park in downtown L.A., the nucleus of her property empire.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Times

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