WAF Newsletter - In Practice - July 2020

In Practice

Paul Hyett, 21 July 2020


Confronting our past

When Delores Hayden, urban historian, architect, author and poet, was consulted about a new commercial development in Los Angeles, her concern was that connections with the past were being systematically eradicated. Gleaming office skyscrapers set in anodyne plazas were replacing buildings and streets of richer character and more human scale.

Delores studied the history of the site and a fascinating story unfolded which her team decided to memorialise via a pictorial narrative of reliefs set into the plinths of the new building – a narrative to be read and enjoyed by those who passed by, connecting the new community, and communities that would follow, to their past.

Wagon wheels, forceps, luggage, instrument cases and much more were indelibly cast in the concrete. They even found the brief-case of the highly esteemed midwife, whose maternity clinic had been set up there some century earlier, lying in the attic of one of her descendants. That midwife, Biddy, whose reputation was to become so distinguished that even the wealthiest mothers-to-be sought her services, was born in Georgia, today some 32 hours due west by car. But Biddy’s journey from her place of birth to LA was less direct and rather longer: she walked the 2,500 miles over a period of seven months behind a wagon which carried her ‘owner’ and his family. Biddy was a slave.

Named Bridget at birth in 1818, she had been presented as a wedding gift when she turned 18 to Robert Smith and his wife Rebecca. As a child, she had laboured in the Mississippi cotton fields, but also assisted in the home where she gained experience as a midwife during the births of the family's six children. Biddy learned midwifery skills steeped in traditional knowledge from the black midwives who tended the multiple births of slave women on the plantations. Slave breeding was a lucrative business.

Smith, an early convert to the fledgling Mormon faith, decided to relocate his family and slaves to the Utah Territory, so Biddy walked behind the wagon convoy with her ten- and four-year-old daughters and an infant on her breast. In 1851 her ‘master’ decided to move further west to San Bernardino in California. However, the Union’s newest state was powerful in its denunciation of slavery, so the nervous settler again relocated, this time to Santa Monica Mountains from where he planned an escape to ‘slavery-friendly’ Texas.

The cavalry tracked him down and the local sheriff presented a writ of habeas corpus, demanding that Biddy and her 14 fellow slaves be released. Smith fought the decree in the Los Angeles First District Court, but the judge rejected Smith’s claim that these human properties were ‘members of his family’ and, in a landmark decision, declared them free.

Adopting the surname Mason, Biddy gained employment with a prominent white physician who offered her work as a midwife. She also acted as a nurse to inmates in the county jail, but with her decades of experience she soon , catering to the became one of the most in-demand midwives. After saving for 10 years, she bought a piece of land on the outskirts of town, where she built a home that would become a refuge for the poor and needy.

By the time of her death in 1891 aged 73, this incredible woman had become a major philanthropist dedicated to helping the poor, irrespective of race, through her amassed fortune of some $300,000 (more than $8 million today).

Does this story, which Delores Haydon has transcribed so beautifully into that small part of the built fabric of Los Angeles matter, in the way that those statues currently the subject of intense debate are deemed by some to matter? Unlike most, Biddy’s plinth is anchored to ‘place’, and because of her a place of significance. All sites have history, but the story of some is more particular, and more profound than others. Biddy’s site is a case in point.

In Germany another site carries a profound story, one that until recently the Germans would not, indeed could not, confront. There is no Biddy-type narrative proclaiming that past and no statue of the person whose body was doused in petrol there and crudely cremated by his house staff. But again, the story has been beautifully told, in a way that forever links event to place, this time in a book by architect, scholar and WAF contributor Alan Balfour. In doing he uses a brilliant narrative device:

‘This work assembles all the layers of surviving residue around this place – texts, drawings, photographs – from two hundred and fifty years of dreams and catastrophes, like a plug drilled from a tree, to uncover the nature and subsequent impact of past seasons and past events’.

The place was the site of Hitler’s bunker, and its history is eloquently revealed from 1737, as a monumental gateway to Berlin, built by command of King Wilhelm I of Prussia, through to its post-war use as Check Point Charlie, and finally to its modern reincarnation as Leipziger Platz.

Here is the point: Germany, initially in denial, confronted its past boldly. Its theatre, cinema, playwrights, painters and writers forced the pace leading the process during the 70s and 80s when I worked there. It was a fascinating time as, pre-unification, Germany prepared itself for its place in the modern world.

That process is now under way in the USA and it will be very painful. A recent lecture by an American black attorney Jeffery Robinson notes the importance of the struggle that the USA faces today in finally coming to terms with its own past, contrasting this with the very different challenge that Germany followed in the aftermath of World War II. It is a brilliant talk which you can find at https://youtu.be/QOPGpE-sXh0. It is worth viewing; Biddy’s story shows just how rich and extraordinary that past is.

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