What’s in a street name? Why This Amazing Black Woman Doesn’t Have Her Own Traffic Sign
“We don’t know much about the history of African Americans and women,” says Brenda Stevenson, professor of history and African-American studies at UCLA. “We still have a white male-centric narrative. So there are gaps in our history. And Biddy Mason falls into some of those shortcomings.
“This is a person who was born a slave, was able to create something wonderful and lasting in one of the greatest cities in the world. His story needs to take public space and public consciousness,” says Stevenson .
sisters Cheryl and Robynn Cox are the great-great-great-great-granddaughters of Biddy Mason.
“Biddy Mason was instrumental in founding Los Angeles. She laid the groundwork to help build this city,” Cheryl told KCRW.
Robynn adds, “That’s why we’re asking the city of Los Angeles to name a street after her.”
Biddy Mason was born into slavery on August 15, 1818, probably in Georgia. It was given as a wedding gift to Robert and Rebecca Smith, plantation owners in Mississippi. Mason added to their family’s wealth by giving birth to three daughters – Ellen, Ann and Harriet. She made herself invaluable in the Smith household, learning herbal medicine and practicing midwifery and nursing skills.
“She was coming out of this institution that was supposed to break you,” says Robynn Cox. “She did what she had to do to keep her family together.”
Mason was in his twenties when Robert Smith converted to a new religion: Mormonism. He decided to move his family and all his belongings out west. The Smith caravan traveled on foot from Mississippi to Utah (because they were Mormons) and eventually ended up in Southern California. The trip lasted almost three years.
In 1851, Los Angeles was a border town of about 1600 people. Mason became acquainted with an educated and affluent local black community who informed her that California was a “free state” – that she and her family could not be held against their will. In California, Mason and his children were free.
But Robert Smith had no intention of losing his property. He decided to move his entire family – along with the 14 enslaved family members – to Texas, a slave state.
Stevenson told KCRW, “When Mason’s friends implicated the sheriff, Smith insisted, ‘These people are my family, they want to stay with me. They all agreed to stay with me and move to Texas. He told them at the same time that once they arrived in Texas, they would be free, which is a shameless lie.
State law did not allow black people to testify in court. So Judge Benjamin Hayes decided to question Mason outside the courtroom. He asked her if she consented to the move. Mason told the judge no.
“If the judge had ruled in favor of Robert Smith, she could have been put to death,” says Cheryl Cox. “She was going to fight for her freedom.”
It was an act of extraordinary courage – and a case of perfect timing.
Barely a year later, in the infamous case of Dred Scott vs. Sandford, the Supreme Court would rule that enslaved people — no matter what state they lived in — were property, not U.S. citizens. “They had no rights that the white man was bound to respect,” Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote for the court’s majority opinion.
After Dred Scott, it would have been illegal for Mason to assert her rights in court as a free black woman. But that day, in this court, Judge Hayes’ decision was unequivocal. “All of these people of color are entitled to their freedom and are free forever,” he wrote.
Against all odds, Mason sued for his freedom and won.
With her family’s future secured, she went to work as a free woman in Los Angeles. Hired as a midwife and nurse, she quickly earned a reputation as a physician of exceptional skill, serving local black and white communities.
“There were very few doctors in the early days of Los Angeles,” says Robynn Cox. “That need allowed him to overcome the color line. Let’s face it, when you’re sick, you’re going to ask for help from whoever has the skills.
For 10 years, Mason saved her money until she could finally buy land on spring street and establish a family farm. She was the first black woman to own property in Los Angeles.
She saved more money and bought more land. She never learned to read or write and signed all land deeds with an “X”. As Los Angeles grew around his homestead, Mason amassed a fortune in real estate. “She was probably the richest black woman west of the Mississippi,” says Cheryl Cox.
So what did Mason do with all that money?
“Grandma Biddy had a saying,” smiles Cheryl Cox.
Robynn Cox continues: “’If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. For the open hand is blessed because it gives abundantly while receiving.’ This is actually a biblical principle. God will bless those who help others.
She left tabs open at local markets so people could pick up whatever they needed. She risked her life treating prisoners in LA jails during an outbreak – the same jail cells she and her family had been forced to live in years earlier.
“Everyone in Los Angeles became her family. There were no schools for black people, so she knew there had to be schools. There was no church where black people could worship, so she knew she had to build a church,” says Cheryl Cox.
In 1872 Mason led the founding of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, which began in his living room. She helped make First AME a cornerstone of the local black community. It remains so today.
“First AME’s mission has always been first to serve. And that pretty much sums up Biddy Mason’s whole outlook on life,” says Jackie Broxton, a member of the First AME Church for 40 years.
Mason died in 1891 having spent most of his life tending to the needs of the city.
So today, how does the city maintain its memory in return?
“Just the park – and the church. If you don’t understand the story, it’s impossible to understand what’s going on now. It’s not fair,” Broxton says.
Los Angeles is full of memorial spaces dedicated to wealthy power brokers and land barons, such as Wilshire Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard. There are streets named for William Mulholland as well as the two Isaacs – Lankershim and Van Nuys.
But what about all the other people who built Los Angeles?
“Biddy Mason, like most women of the 19th century, was not focused on leaving a public legacy that would live on in people’s imaginations in the future,” Stevenson said. “It has always been important to collect the stories of people who have contributed powerfully to our society.”
For Cheryl and Robynn Cox, reclaiming history is personal.
“It was ingrained in us that it was our responsibility to be stewards of our family’s legacy,” says Cheryl. “We asked the city to change the name of Spring Street.”
“That’s where his farm was,” Robynn adds. “We hope Los Angeles will rename Spring Street in his honor.”
Can change a name change public memory? Brenda Stevenson thinks so.
Renaming Spring Street after Biddy Mason is perfect, she says. “If we are to change our understanding of American history to one that includes all of the people who helped build the United States of America, then we must dedicate more public space to understanding what is this story.”
Commemorating a past to build a better future may seem like an illusion, but if you want inspiration to do the seemingly impossible, consider the story of Biddy Mason.
This is part of Greater LA’s series on local streets – how they got their names and what they say about past and present life here.