Responsible relationships in historical commemoration

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Editors’ Note: This post is part of a [email protected] series that complements “The Public Historian,” volume 40, number 3, which is about the history of the field of Black Museums.

The Biddy Mason Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California, invites us into the story of a once-enslaved woman. The events of Biddy Mason’s life, which began in 1818, are etched along a concrete wall through symbols and images and narratives that chart her life in Los Angeles: first as a slave; then as a midwife; as plaintiff in a constitutional anti-slavery case; and finally, as landowner and real estate agent. Biddy Mason can be thought of as a pioneer, although she might not fit the typical pioneer image of the American imagination. Mason traveled on foot, enslaved, for seven months in the year 1851, only to end up contributing to the settling of Los Angeles.[1]

The Biddy Mason Memorial Park in Los Angeles is an African American public history site that poses many questions about the complicated relationships between cities and their histories. These are important questions to ask. More often than not, regrettably, cities have not lived up to their responsibilities in these relationships. The Biddy Mason Memorial Park feels like one such example.

In the late 1980s, professor of American studies Dolores Hayden’s Power of Place organization created a site of historical commemoration around the life of Biddy Mason. Collaborators included Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, who was then curator at the California African American Museum. The site was to be divided into two parts: a chronological commemorative wall by artist Sheila deBretteville, outlining the life of the “grandmother of Los Angeles”; and an installation by famed African American artist Betye Saar, entitled Biddy Mason: House of the Open Hand. The installation provides a sense of the homestead that Mason established in 1896, right there on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles.

I first read about this site while writing my dissertation and was eager for a visit the next time I traveled to Los Angeles. My daughter and I set out in search of this unique piece of African American public history, only to have the most difficult time finding where “Mason’s memory has been reclaimed by the city of Los Angeles,” as Hadley Meares observed in Curbed: Los Angeles.

The GPS on our phones insisted that the park did not exist. As we began to ask around no one seemed to know where, or what, Biddy Mason Memorial Park was. Not the local parking attendants. Not the area merchants. Not even the security guard whose desk, it turned out, was in view of that memorial wall. Finally, at the site, surrounded by a small green space, we moved slowly along the illustrative etchings, quotes, dates, and images within the weathered wall. As we took pictures and read quotes to each other, passersby rushed behind us carrying fast food containers and cell phones. No one stopped to see what it was we were looking at. Perhaps they had already taken their turn in reading this woman’s story. But perhaps not. There was a problem with the space itself, the memorial hidden as it was behind storefronts and office buildings. The homestead installation portion of the site, perhaps once in plainer view, stood now within a tight enclosure. Our backs were to an elevator bank as we viewed the representative knick-knacks lined up inside the curated window sill. The positioning of the installation and the wall, set relatively far apart from each other, gave one a sense of disconnectedness.

According to Dolores Hayden, after its completion in 1989, the park quickly became a popular destination for heritage tourism and educational tours. Its popularity, unfortunately, seems to have declined and therein lies what I believe is some responsibility on the part of the City of Los Angeles. There is so often much enthusiasm surrounding the creation of African American public history sites, but what is done to sustain them—to sustain the interest and the relevance of these projects—is at least as important as the creation of the sites themselves. These strategies must be considered from the start. Take, for example, the McLeod Plantation Historic Site (MPHS) in Charleston, South Carolina, which is another example of what can be accomplished when parties work together to tell the complicated history of our country.

Houses of the enslaved at McLeod Plantation Historic Site. Photo credit: Charleston County Parks

Shawn Halifax writes in The Public Historian’s special issue on Black museums about his experience as a historical interpreter for the McLeod Plantation which opened in 2015. The museum was created in order to underscore the fact that, as Halifax put it, “the experiences of African Americans does not end with the abolishment of slavery, as if the challenges raised by generations of slavery were somehow solved with the close of the American Civil War.”[2] This mission, Halifax noted, makes for a stand-out museum among Black history museums in terms of historical interpretation, observes Halifax. Southern plantations are the spaces that we expect to find these stories of slavery, of course; the MPHS strives to tell this story in an extended or alternative fashion.

Americans are typically aware of the history of enslaved people in British North American in some manner, yet they are unable to articulate much, if any, knowledge regarding Black history post-Emancipation Proclamation up until the mid-twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. As with the MPHS, The Biddy Mason Memorial Park is a contributor to this particular knowledge of African American history as it highlights the post-slavery life of an African-American pioneer woman. Mason’s story individuates the slave narrative, reminding us of the lived experiences of human beings who had families and lovers and dreams. It is a story of self-possession, instead of White saviorhood, and yet it seems unlikely that many people will ever gain this particular knowledge due to the memorial’s lack of accessibility and publicity.

The major difference between these two sites rests within the institutional support each receives. This is an important factor in terms of sustainability. The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission began the process of converting what is to many the symbol of slavery—a plantation—into a site that serves “the needs and interests of persons of African ancestry and those who wish to know more,” as Halifax explained in his article. The Commission then went further by seeking out a historian, an “interpreter” who would tell “the whole truth” about the lives lived on this land—all of the lives (253). The agency also “conducted public listening sessions and administered surveys” (260). They sought out numerous ways to make the historical knowledge buried in this plantation house accessible – through tours, and brochures, and apps. This kind of action keeps historical commemoration sites relevant and public and bodes well for the site’s future. The Biddy Mason Memorial Park, on the other hand, seems to have been left to the vagaries of curious passersby and a few proactive tourists. Although it began in the same vein, with a passionate and knowledgeable corps of creators and contributors, today there is no publicity, no municipal website link, no indication of its existence. A recent search of the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks website comes up with a “no results” finding when “Biddy Mason” is entered.

As of now, the City of Los Angeles looks culpable in dropping the ball on this most important historical space, a space that many worked so hard to create. In the end, and once again, the story of a Black woman’s progress and success has been buried—in this case between an elevator bank and an office building. We can and must do better at sustaining these kinds of projects and it is my hope that the MacLeod site will continue to receive its due attention. Perhaps it will ultimately become a model for more responsible relationships between cities and their complicated histories.

~Katie Singer has a PhD in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark. Her work centers on the untold stories of Great Migration participants and their ancestors, and the major impact that they have had on American history.

[1]Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (The MIT Press: 1995), 143.

[2]Shawn Halifax, ”McLeod Plantation Historic Site: Sowing Truth and Change,” The Public Historian 40, 3 (August 2018), 256.

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