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Celebrating Black History Month: Biddy Mason



ESD minimizes abuse and violence through the use of tools that help us to understand and navigate power relationships as well as physically defend ourselves. ESD is about using our bodies and our minds. It teaches awareness, boundary-setting, de-escalation, and how to determine whether it is best to yell, run, or fight in any given situation.


ESD is sometimes summed up in five principles: Think, Yell, Run, Fight, Tell. The ideas and ideology behind these principles can be found throughout history: the idea that there is a time to think, a time to yell, a time to run, a time to fight, and a time to share your story. Each of these elements can be empowering, but ultimately it is only by recognizing your own capabilities that you can dictate the course of your life.


In honor of Black History Month, we dedicate February’s blog to a story of suffering, struggle, survivorship, bravery, and ultimately empowerment. We hope that the story of Biddy Mason, a once-enslaved woman turned thriving survivor and successful entrepreneur, will inspire as it recalls a history of consequence to us all.


This is the story of a woman who, through her determination and strength, became a survivor and successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. Bridget “Biddy Mason was born into slavery, beginning her life in Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. Her enslaver, Robert Marion Smith, moved his family and the people he had enslaved out west to a Mormon community that later became Salt Lake City, Utah. The enslaved weren’t given seats in any of the 300 wagons making up their caravan, so Mason was forced to walk most of the 1,700 miles, care for the Smith party, herd cattle, and raise her three young children, including a newborn.

After a few years, despite knowing that California was a free state, the Smiths decided to relocate to San Bernardino with the still-enslaved Mason and her family. At first, it was the black community in southern California that came to Mason’s aid (Charles and Elizabeth Rowan, then Robert Owens and his son Charles). They informed her that slavery was illegal in California and convinced the L.A. County Sheriff to head off Smith when he tried to avoid California law by moving everyone to Texas.


Then, with continued help from the community, Mason empowered herself. Her friends encouraged her to petition the court for her freedom. Mason did just that and won her freedom, something that was still uncommon in 1856. Biddy Mason and her extended family were free.


Soon after, Mason’s daughter Ellen married Charles Owens, and the Mason clan moved from San Bernardino to Los Angeles. Working as a nurse and midwife, Biddy Mason, at the age of 48, had saved enough money to buy a house in downtown Los Angeles. Through hard work, thrift, incredible strength and drive, and what one can only imagine must have been excruciating patience, Mason became the first black woman to own land in Los Angeles.

Mason went on to start the First A.M.E. Church in L.A., telling others, in true ESD fashion, that she wanted to establish “a church that would minister to the mind, body and soul.” That church is 19,000 parishioners strong today. Mason increased her wealth over the years, operating a day nursery and school in the early days and later expanding to other ventures. All the while, Mason bought real estate, building her fortune to $300,000—the equivalent of $6 million today.


As Biddy Mason’s wealth grew, so did her charity and philanthropy. Mason ministered to the poor and hungry, visited prisoners, and helped build schools and hospitals. As she always used to say, "If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives."


On January 15, 1891, Bridget “Biddy” Mason died at age 73, a testament to survival and empowerment of self and others. Today, Biddy Mason Memorial Park stands nearby the site of her first home.


Sources

U.S. National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/people/biddymason.htm

First A.M.E. Church of Los Angeles, https://www.famechurchla.org/ministries/about-fame-church/

LA Conservancy, Biddy Mason Memorial Park, https://www.laconservancy.org/locations/biddy-mason-memorial-park

California Historical Society, https://californiahistoricalsociety.org/blog/pioneering-black-urbanites-in-san-francisco-and-los-angeles/

Myrna Oliver, “A Lot of History: Parking Structure Houses Memorial to L.A. Pioneer,” November 17, 1989,https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-11-17-me-1802-story.html

Jeri Chase Ferris, With Open Hands, A Story About Biddy Mason, Millbrook Press, Minneapolis, 1999, https://bit.ly/3uTMZ10.



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