History of the LASD, Part 5
The Confederacy of California
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, date unknown
In 1818, a Black woman named Bridget Mason was born enslaved in Mississippi (some sources say she was born in Georgia and moved to Mississippi shortly thereafter). She traveled (on foot, most likely) from her birthplace to Utah and, eventually, San Bernardino, California, with her enslaver, Robert Smith, who had converted to Mormonism and made the trek West along with over a dozen other enslaved women and children. This was not at all atypical, but, once in California, Mason escaped from the Smith household with her three daughters and seven other women and children. They moved in with a free Black family then living in Los Angeles. She sued for her freedom because California was a “free state,” meaning chattel slavery was not allowed. During the course of the legal proceedings, Mason and the other women and children were jailed (for their own good) in the Los Angeles County Jail. In 1856, Mason won her trial and she and her children became free. The decision was written by Judge Benjamin Hayes, who is kind of a big cheese if you are into early California judicial history.
According to one account, it was the Los Angeles Sheriff Frank DeWitt who intercepted Robert Smith with a posse, acting on a “tip” that Smith had illegally enslaved people and was trying to take them out of state. Smith had his own problems, got himself in trouble with the Mormon leaders in San Bernardino, and was planning to move to Texas. Smith also claimed at one point that Mason and the other women were “part of his family,” which some have interpreted as Smith claiming the women as part of his plurality of wives under Mormonism — some of the children were probably his. Other versions of this story emphasize that Mason used her connections to other Black families to stage an escape from Smith. And some historians use the story to praise Judge Hayes’s support for “underdogs” like Mason.
Mason stayed in Los Angeles with her children and worked as a nurse and midwife. (She became known as “Aunt Biddy,” and it’s hard to sort the “good woman” stereotypes from the reality, which is why I, a stranger, am calling her “Bridget Mason.”) One of her important jobs was working as a nurse for the people imprisoned in the Los Angeles County Jail, who were mostly Native Americans and, therefore, deemed unworthy of treatment by the white doctor that the county had appointed to do this work. Mason never left a written record of her work, but she did continue to minister to the people in the jail as a volunteer. Mason is now well-known for her real estate acumen, and, by her death in 1891, Mason was considered the richest Black women “west of the Mississippi.” (She also founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.)
California entered the union as a “free” state, but it was far from equal, and Mason’s story is not representative. In his book West of Slavery, Kevin Waite argues that the elite ruling class of California was indebted to southern plantation owners and supportive of pro-slavery politicians. It was far from certain whether California would even be a free state; Waites presents many instances where politicians discussed whether California should be divided into two states, with the southern part of California aligning with the soon-to-be Confederacy. Plus, southern politicians rose to power in California and dominated the courts. As a result, California passed a “fugitive slave law,” which provided for the return of enslaved people to slavers, and in 1858 (just one year after the Dred Scott decision and two years after Bridget Mason won her freedom), the California Supreme Court held that a man named Archy Lee was required to return to his enslaver, reinforcing California’s status as southern-aligned.
Archy Lee was forced by the California Supreme Court to return to Mississippi with his enslaver, but the decision enraged abolitionists so much that they captured Lee’s enslaver and brought Lee back to California for a federal trial, which Lee won. But, the Black community had invested a lot of money into Lee’s case only to have another fugitive slave law passed in California. As a result, Lee and around 200 Black Californiansmoved to Victoria, British Columbia, lured there by gold mining and the promise for being treated equally under the law.
Newspaper advertisement to solicit funds for the defense of Archy Lee, c. 1858
After the Civil War, Black people moved to California in higher numbers in order to escape the Jim Crow South. W.E.B. Du Bois famously praised Los Angeles after his trip there in 1913, painting a joyous and jubilant picture of prosperity.
But, of course, there was oppression there, too. In Los Angeles, racist redlining meant that most Black residents lived in the Central Avenue district, which was constantly overpoliced by the Los Angeles Police Department and a cite of Black rebellion against racist violence. And, of course, both the LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have long been seeped in violence, particularly considering the vigilante beginnings of the LASD. The LASD, in particular, was already skilled at arresting and jailing people to sell their labor and was well-prepared to enforce formal and informal racism.
On April 24, 1927, LAPD Officer M.B. Sheffield shot and killed Sam Faulker in the process of a botched raid on a home in the Central Avenue district. There was a criminal trial and Sheffield, in a sad but unsurprising twist, was acquitted even though the evidence was quite clear he had murdered Sam Faulker. (Sheffield was a known bad actor, it should be added, and was feared and disliked throughout the community where he worked.) In response to the demands of some Black leaders, both the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD promised to hire more Black officers. (There were other demands as well, but most remained unaddressed, eventually leading to the Watts Rebellion.)
In 1899, Wiliam Hammel became the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, supported, in part, by his promise to add diversity to the LASD chain of command. That same year, Hammel appointed J.B. Loving to be the first Black chief deputy in the LASD, and he would remain the only Black deputy for over a decade. Loving claimed that he was a major in the “Buffalo Soldiers,” an all-Black battalion that primarily fought Native Americans in the western frontier. He even wore a military uniform even though some of his military exploits appear to have been a total fantasy. By all accounts, Loving was not a particularly sympathetic deputy; in charge of the jail, he used his position to spy on people being held as prisoners. He also “invented” the technique of triple- and quadruple-bunking when the jail became overcrowded. Eventually, Loving left the LASD and changed his racial designation to “white” on his official census documents after moving to the suburbs.
The racial disparities and conflicts between Los Angeles’s Black communities and law enforcement continue unabated. One LASD gang, the Wayside Whities, was formed by deputies working inside the jail specifically, it seems, as a response to the racist dynamics that long existed inside the L.A. jails. (The Wayside Whities were described as “a Ku Klux Klan-type organization espousing white supremacy and having as one of its objectives the subjugation, intimidation and terrorization.”) Just as Loving used his position to entrap and spy on people being caged, deputy gangs operating inside the jail use their positions to extort those being held as prisoners and enact violence as a way of asserting control. The infamous Sheriff Peter Pitchess, elected in 1958, was also instrumental to much of the violence and corruption we see today. (See, next installment.) Not only did Pitchess “modernize” the department, but he also pioneered many of the policies that cemented the position of the LASD as one which tamps down dissent and continues to re-enact white supremacy.
Credit to two important books I used as reference (other sources are linked). Both books are by the excellent University of North Carolina Press. I wanted to add this is by no means a complete history of the LASD and anti-Black racism.
City of Inmates by Kelly Lytle Hernandez.
West of Slavery by Kevin Waite.