The Biddy Mason Collaborative is a community research project, co-directed by Sarah Barringer Gordon, Arielle Alterwaite, and Francis Russo at the University of Pennsylvania. The project explores the life and times of Biddy Mason, a pioneering woman whose journey from slavery to freedom unfolded across the entire continent. She was born in 1818 in Georgia, later sold to Mississippi, and taken by her Latter-day Saint slaveholder first to Utah (1848) and then to the Mormon colony in San Bernardino (1851). Biddy was emancipated after a court battle in early 1856. She took the last name Mason after achieving hard-won freedom, and spent the last 35 years of her life in Los Angeles, and died there in 1891. In LA, her generosity and leadership laid the foundations for the city’s African American community, and where her legacy is all-too-rarely recognized.
The project seeks to amplify that legacy and bring greater awareness to Mason’s remarkable story. To that end, the collaboration has already produced several publications and public events, with many more scheduled in the coming years.
You can find our work on Biddy Mason in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Salt Lake Tribune, and several other media outlets. In January, Gordon and Waite delivered a keynote address for the Huntington Library’s centennial lecture series. Future publications include scholarly articles on the law of slavery and freedom in American West, as well as an examination of the artistic representations of Mason. We are also writing a book, the first full-length history of Mason’s life and times.
This work is supported by a diverse group of academics, lawyers, writers, and community leaders, working across a wide range of subjects. Collaborators include scholars of slavery and emancipation, religion, African American history, and women’s history. We’re also proud to work alongside leaders of First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church in Los Angeles, which Biddy Mason herself co-founded, the Biddy Mason Foundation, and direct descendants of “Grandma Mason.”
Only through the collaborative efforts of these experts are we able to uncover a life story as complex as it is rich. We are dedicated to sharing this story through multiple different platforms and venues, and we encourage all those interested to follow our work through this website and other venues. As the first coordinated and sustained study of Biddy’s life and times, we are hard at work to recover accurate information and documents about this remarkable journey.