When we talk about black history, the first images that come to mind often reflect the brutality of slavery. We must remember that brutality, but we must also remember the resistance to slavery that ultimately succeeded. These heroic black figures of the past teach us that we all have the capacity to succeed, even at extraordinary odds.
Bridget Mason, later nicknamed Biddy, was born in 1818 as a slave to a Mississippi man named Robert Smith. After walking 1,800 miles to follow Smith to California, she successfully sued him for his freedom. As a free woman, Biddy worked as a midwife and nurse, carefully saving everything she could. She used her savings to buy land in the fast-growing city of Los Angeles. She eventually became the richest and most influential black American west of the Mississippi, and she used her fortune to fund charities and serve the poor.
The question for us is: What parts of this story would we like to know more about? Want to know more about how badly Robert Smith treated Biddy? How did her feet hurt when she walked behind that wagon train, or how did her back hurt as she got up and broke down the camp, all the while taking care of her own little children?
Or do we want to know more about how on earth someone born into slavery was able to sue successfully for his freedom? How was she able to save her modest earnings, how did she decide which properties to buy, and what kind of charity she chose to support and why?
New York Times‘s
“1619 Project” claimed that the evil of slavery was the heart of the founding of the United States. If so, the only American thing about Biddy Mason’s story is what Robert Smith did to her. But her experience of slavery does not define what her life meant to her or to the countless people she touched. What she did to get free, and what she did once free, is as American as the rest of her story.
A group of researchers reprimanded the “1619 project” and expressed reservations about it and the accompanying curriculum. They said the project contained factual errors that suggested “a shift in historical understanding of ideology.” More importantly, the “1619 project” defined all American history as the story of such men as Robert Smith, who were average at best, while a woman as remarkable as Biddy Mason can only be understood as Robert Smith’s slave.
Stories like Biddy Mason’s, taught with even reasonable competence, can inspire school children of all races and backgrounds. Who would not be inspired by someone who, banned from learning to read or write, sponsored the construction of the first black church in Los Angeles, which has thousands of members today? Heroes like Mason can give us all, regardless of race, a framework to understand our past and build our future together. They can give us the tools to reconcile ourselves with one another and discern justice in the light of historical reality.
When Americans discuss our common past freely and independently come to moral conclusions, we open the door to real and lasting progress. Young people in the next generation must learn that they are agents of their own upliftment and that they do not have to wait for an external force to save them. If our children lack models for excellence and inspirational stories that they can join, then we have lost what education should be about.
Our history, and how we talk about it, shapes our future. Black history is part of American history, and we are all co-authors of the story we want to make. We can and must talk about black history without arming it. We can and we must raise black voices without falling into shouting.
Let’s talk about the totality of stories like Biddy Masons. Let’s talk about how to make the discussion and teaching of American history – including black history – open, complete and honest.
Mr. Woodson is the founder and president of the Woodson Center and editor of “Red, White and Black: Rescuing American History From Revisionists and Race Hustlers.”
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