Heroes are born from the brutality of slavery

When talking about black history, the first images that come to mind often reflect the brutality of slavery. We must remember this brutality, but we must also remember the resistance to slavery, which ultimately succeeded. These heroic dark figures from the past teach us that we all have the ability to succeed, even in the face of extraordinary odds.

Bridget Mason, later nicknamed Biddy, was born in 1818 as a slave to a Mississippi man named Robert Smith. After traveling 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 whatever she could. She used her savings to purchase land in the rapidly growing city of Los Angeles. She eventually became the wealthiest and most influential black American west of the Mississippi, and she used her fortune to fund charities and serve the poor.

Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason, 1818-1891.



The question for us is: what parts of this story do we want to know more about? Do we want to know more about how Robert Smith treated Biddy badly? How her feet ached as she walked behind that wagon, or how her back ached as she ran up and down camp, while caring for her own young children?

Or do we want to know more about how someone born into slavery was able to successfully sue for their freedom? How was she able to save her modest income, how did she decide which properties to buy and what kind of charities she chose to support and why?

The New York Timesit is

The 1619 Project posited that the evil of slavery was central to the founding of America. If so, the only American thing in Biddy Mason’s story is what Robert Smith did to him. 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 free herself, and what she did when she was free, is every bit as American as the rest of her story.

A group of scholars chastised the “1619 Project”, expressing reservations about it and the accompanying program. They said the draft contained factual errors that suggested “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology”. More importantly, the “1619 Project” defined all of American history as the story of men like Robert Smith, who was 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 skill, can inspire schoolchildren of all races and walks of life. Who wouldn’t be inspired by someone who, forbidden to learn to read or write, sponsored the building of the first black church in Los Angeles, which today has thousands of members? Heroes like Mason can give all of us, regardless of race, a framework to understand our past and build our future together. They can give us the tools to reconcile and discern justice in the light of historical reality.

When Americans freely discuss our shared past, independently coming to moral conclusions, we open the door to real and lasting progress. The next generation of youth must learn that they are agents of their own upliftment and need not wait for an outside force to save them. If our children lack role models and inspirational stories to connect with, then we have lost what education should be.

Our history and how we talk about it shape our future. Black history is part of American history, and we are all co-authors of the history we will make. We can and must talk about black history without weaponizing it. We can and we must raise black voices without falling into shouting matches.

Let’s talk about full stories like Biddy Mason’s. Let’s talk about how to make the discussion and teaching of American history – including black history – open, comprehensive, and honest.

Mr. Woodson is founder and president of the Woodson Center and editor of “Red, White and Black: Rescuing American History From Revisionists and Race Hustlers.”

Upward Mobility (2/18/20): The New York Times’ 1619 Project is not about black history. It is about racial disparities today and the application of current ideologies to past events. Image: The 1776 Project

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