Meet Biddy Mason, a Black Woman Who Helped Build Los Angeles
When you think of the people who built Los Angeles, the names that most likely jump to mind — William Mulholland, the Chandlers — are often those of white men. It’s not surprising, and it’s not unusual among American cities.
Ms. Mason, she said, had been born enslaved, won her freedom in a California court in the mid-1850s and eventually became a prominent downtown L.A. landowner — not to mention the growing metropolis’s richest woman.
She organized the city’s First A.M.E. church and was a philanthropist.
It’s Black History Month, so I’ve been thinking about what it means to honor the legacies of people whom history has traditionally left out.
Ms. Atkins and Arisa White, a poet, have written a book about Ms. Mason’s life, “Biddy Mason Speaks Up,” part of a series about civil rights leaders. So I asked them how they decided to write about her and about different ways of thinking about historical figures.
“A lot of what we thought about was the idea of the kind of linear, heroic narrative, where there’s one singular person who saves the day, versus more of a feminist recovery project,” Ms. White said. “We have to amass Biddy Mason’s story by pulling through different threads.”
The book, which is illustrated by Laura Freeman, alternates between a story told from Ms. Mason’s perspective and pages that are filled with definitions of words like “power,” “race,” and “westward expansion,” as well as timelines and discussion questions for readers about how those themes play out in their own lives.
On one page, the authors ask: “Have you ever been taken away from someone you love?”
On another: “What does freedom mean to you?”
Ms. White said she was also excited to highlight a different way of building wealth. Ms. Mason worked as a midwife and a healer who used herbal remedies her enslaved grandmother had taught her.