California Love: Bridget “Biddy” Mason and the Rowans

I had time this past weekend to care for my hair slowly and methodically at the pace of nature. I conditioned, moisturized and then groomed my roots into the locs I’ve worn for the past five years while enjoying a glass of wine…or two.

As I twisted my hair between my palms, I thought of Tessica Brown—wondering what her usual hair care rituals were, understanding our shared concern in looking good, sensing our common desire to balance self-care with motherhood. I understood how blessed we were in having the ability, the resources and freedom to achieve a certain hair style—and I applauded Tessica for making her $20,000 donation to Restore Foundation. Black women throughout history have made a habit of learning from personal challenges, giving themselves grace, and then extending that grace to the community around them.

I wish I could talk to this woman Bridget “Biddy” Mason and learn about the specific experiences in her life that inspired her to give.

All of this reminded me of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. God only knows what chemicals this American hero put in her hair to achieve an “acceptable” appearance. Between 1818 (the year she was born into bondage in Mississippi) and 1848 (the year she walked 1700 miles with her master to Salt Lake City, Utah) there likely wasn’t much of a choice. She might have used anything from egg yolk to lard.

While walking across largely unsettled wilderness behind a 300-wagon caravan, she drove cattle, built and broke down camp each day, prepared meals and was midwife to any pregnant women along the way. She also had three children, including a newborn, of her own. Maybe she had a moment to secure her hair in a quick ponytail or cover it with a head wrap, but during that long trek she likely had neither the time nor the freedom to deliberately and properly care for herself or her hair.

Mason remained with her master in Utah for three years before the dude decided to relocate his family, Mason and all of the other people he owned to San Bernardino. After that fateful trip, Mason met and befriended Elizabeth Flake Rowan and her husband Charles H. Rowan. Now these folks are noteworthy Black Californian figures as well. Elizabeth was the first Black resident of San Bernardino Valley in 1851 after helping to guide the Mormon family who owned her to Southern California. Elizabeth fashioned the bricks for the first homes built there too. Six years later, she was emancipated. Together with Charles, she had three children. Charles operated a barbershop and so did their son. Their daughter Alice became one of the first Black people to complete college in the area and was one of the first to teach White children in Riverside.

After Mason experienced five years of servitude in California, the Rowans and other free Blacks in the area successfully convinced Mason to petition for her freedom. (The story at this link is juicy.) In 1856, she was victorious in freeing herself as well as 13 other family members. She then moved to Los Angeles and supported her family as a midwife and nurse.

Mason is said to have delivered 100 babies in Los Angeles. Very well known at the time, she was one of less than 20 Black people present in a community of 2000 residents. Following the advice of her daughter’s in-laws and the doctor with whom she worked, Mason began investing in real estate. She purchased land on Spring Street in what is present-day downtown Los Angeles. There she built a home where she organized meetings for the church that became First African Methodist Episcopalian Church (F.A.M.E.)— a key destination for politicians looking to secure the Black Southern Californian vote.

Mason told her children that they must never sell their first home because she always wanted to maintain a safe space for them and for anyone in need of assistance or refuge. She ran a daycare, facilitated civic and community meetings, and ran First .A.M.E. out of that house. Continuing to invest in real estate and develop properties in key locations, Mason became known as the “richest Black woman west of the Mississippi” and amassed a fortune valued at $3 to $6 million dollars today.

A philanthropist who gave aid to all people regardless of race, Mason encouraged her community to seek education, visited jails to minister to prisoners, paid church taxes and operational expenses, and fed all families made homeless by the floods of 1884. She did all of this as a single, illiterate Black mother with hair just like mine.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason died in 1891, all but forgotten after somehow being buried in an unmarked grave. Since that time, her burial site at First A.M.E. has been updated with a proper stone and the Biddy Mason Memorial Park was built in her honor.

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