Biddy Mason'a walk to freedom—about a two-thousand-mile walk—took her from Mississippi to California, via Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time, she was a slave who worked in the cotton fields, tended to the animals, and used her knowledge of herbal medicine to heal sick people and her skills as a midwife to deliver babies. I first learned about Biddy Mason in 1995. That was the year of our cross-country road trip from New Jersey
to California. Before we left, I had
identified places where we could find women's history—monuments, markers, memorials, gravesites, houses, historic sites, museums, and archives. When we got to Los Angeles, we went in search of the Biddy Mason Memorial. I assumed from the address that I had that we would see the memorial from the street. That was not the case. Back and forth we wandered. Finally I found someone who said to go around the corner to the Bradbury Building on Broadway. There, we unknowingly walked into an architectural marvel, a five-story building with a central atrium of walkways with ornate ironwork that extends five stories up to a huge skylight. Speechless and wided-eyed, we took in the dazzlling sight. "It's Saturday. All the offices are close,"a not-very-friendly sounding guard informed us.
"We're looking for the Biddy Mason Memorial," I replied.
"Out that back dorr," he said pointing across the lobby. He warmed up as I chatted away, admiring "his" building." Before long, he said we could take a ride to the top floor in the open filigree elevator cage! So, we did—WOW!
WOW again when we stepped out of the building and into an exquisite, narrow, vest-pocket park created in a space surrounded by the Bradbury Building, a new parking garage, and an arcade with small shops, all built on land once owned by Bridget, "Biddy," Mason, a former slave.
Biddy Mason's life story is briefly told on an eighty-one foot long and eight foot high wall with ten granite panels. Created by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, a graphic designer and artist, the memorial was dedicated in 1991.
Each of ten panels represent a decade from 1810 to 1900. Dates and words are incised into each panels with inserts of photographs, maps, and drawings. There are two narratives, one about the development of Los Angeles when "forty-four settlers from Mexico established the pueblo of Los Angeles—twenty-six have African ancestors."
The other narrative is about Biddy Mason. At the top of each panel, a large-sized font outlines the highlights of her life: "BIddy Mason born a slave./She learns midwifery./She walks to California behind a wagon train./She wins freedom in court./She owns land./She delivers hundreds of babies./Los Angeles mourns and reveres Grandma Mason." Words in a smaller font add more details: "Eighteen year old Biddy and her sister Hannah become the property of Robert Smith . . . ./Smith transports slaves to California, a free state, where Judge Hayes declares Biddy Mason's family . . . free forever/From ten
years' wages Biddy saves $250 to buy this homestead lots 3 and 8, Block 7 of the Old Survey, a bit out of town, amid gardens and groves./Biddy nurses the sick, comforts prisoners, and pays a grocery store at 4th and Spring streets to feed all the families made homeless by seasonal floods."
The images include historic maps and views of Los Angeles, a picket fence, a large wagon wheel, a midwife's bag, a spool of thread, scissors, and the X that Biddy Mason used to sign her name, since she could neither read or write. Photographs of her freedom papers and the deed to her property are bonded to pieces of limestone set into the wall. The final image on the last panel (1900) is the only known photograph of Biddy Mason, a full-face portrait of an unsmiling and resolute-looking woman.
Biddy Mason won her court case that freed her and thirteen members of her family in 1856, just in time because in 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous ruling in the Dred Scott case invalidated any laws that allowed slaves to become free when they moved to free states or territories.
Biddy went to work as a midwife and a nurse, gaining a reputation as a skilled healer and midwife. She delivered babies and tended to sick people, of all races and ethnicities, rich or poor. Like most midwives, she was called "Grandma" or "Aunt." By 1866, she had saved enough money to buy her first piece of property. She lived frugally, while working and buying and selling property. In 1872, she held a meeting in her home to organize the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, a large and thriving community-oriented church to this day. Many years later, her great-granddaughter, Gladys Owens Smith, recalled Biddy Mason telling her, "If you hold your hand closed, Gladys, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives."
Biddy Mason died in her home in 1891. Her funeral was held at her church.
She was buried in a grave that remained unmarked until 1988, when the mayor of Los Angeles and three thousand members of the church dedicated a headstone, hailing her as a philanthropist and humanitarian. "Our young people need to know about her," say Mayor Tom Bradley. As do we all!
Images (Click to enlarge): Only known photograph of Biddy Mason; Memorial Wall, l-r, 1900 to 1810; close up; Los Angeles Express, Jan. 19, 1891, p. 1; l-r, a girl scout with Amanda Gorman who read a poem at Biddy Mason's 200th birthday celebration; Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 16, 1891 p. 5; Los Angeles Times, Jan. 21, 1891, p. 2.
Note: Biddy Mason is one of the notable but should-be well known women I wrote about in Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference.