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  • Feb 20, 2024
  • IREM

How two black real estate leaders shaped the future of real estate management: An IREM® Black History Month tribute to Bridget “Biddy” Mason and Philip A. Payton, Jr.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it's important to recognize and honor the trailblazers who’ve left an indelible mark on business and industry, shaping the landscape for generations to come. In the realm of real estate management, two formidable figures stand out for their pioneering efforts and commitment to breaking down barriers: Bridget "Biddy" Mason and Philip A. Payton Jr. In this blog post, we explore the impact of these two historical figures, who still serve as powerful inspiration for current and aspiring real estate managers striving for inclusivity and equity within their communities.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818 - 1891)

A pioneering entrepreneur and real estate maven of the 19th century, Biddy Mason was born enslaved and not only secured her own freedom from slavery, but also went on to become one of the first African American women to own substantial real estate in Los Angeles. At the age of 30, she walked a 1,700-mile trek with a 300-wagon caravan from Mississippi to what became Salt Lake City, Utah, accompanying her then-owner, Robert Marion Smith, along with his family. After three years in Utah, Smith moved his family again, this time to San Bernadino, California. In 1856, she gained freedom for her family and herself.

After moving her family to Los Angeles, Mason became a midwife and nurse, accumulating enough savings to purchase land in what is now downtown L.A. Eventually her savings amounted to what is today about $7.5 million, and she invested it in supporting her community, creating a daycare center, financial support for families displaced by floods, and cofounding a church that’s still active today, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American church in the city. Mason was also instrumental in founding a travelers’ aid center and an elementary school for black children.

Biddy Mason's impact extends beyond her individual achievements; her legacy serves as an inspiring testament to perseverance and vision. Real estate managers can draw valuable lessons from Mason's journey, understanding the importance of breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for underserved communities within the industry. Her legacy highlights the significant contributions that individuals, particularly those from historically marginalized backgrounds, can make to the real estate landscape and serves as a source of inspiration for fostering diversity and equity.

Philip A. Payton, Jr. (1876 – 1917)

At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of recently freed black rural Southerners fled to New York City, where they lived in overcrowded, filthy tenements and faced housing discrimination and police brutality. Philip A. Payton, Jr., who grew up in Massachusetts, was trained to be a barber like his father and was highly ambitious, much like his two brothers who graduated from Yale and sister who also earned a college degree.

He moved to New York City in 1899, and, eventually settled in Harlem, where there was a high vacancy rate. Recognizing an opportunity, he negotiated with white landowners to provide housing to African American tenants. In 1902, Phillip A. Payton, Jr.  founded the Afro-American Realty Company, a groundbreaking venture aimed at building and securing fair housing opportunities for the African American community in New York City.

The New York Times’ “Overlooked” series recounts how Payton initially used his property management skills to address racial inequality in housing.

"My first opportunity came as a result of a dispute between two landlords in West 134th Street,” he recalled in an interview with The New York Age, a black newspaper. “To ‘get even’ one of them turned his house over to me to fill with colored tenants. I was successful in renting and managing this house, after a time I was able to induce other landlords to … give me their houses to manage.”

His dedication earned him the title "Father of Harlem," as his efforts were instrumental in the development of Harlem into a flourishing cultural and residential hub for the African American community. His efforts helped lay the groundwork for the Harlem Renaissance period in American culture.

By actively contributing to the Great Migration, Payton facilitated the movement of African Americans from the southern United States to northern cities, catalyzing demographic shifts and urban development. His legacy serves as a reminder of the influential role that real estate professionals can play in fostering inclusive communities and breaking down systemic barriers to housing.

Join IREM this Black History Month as we celebrate the achievements of these tw0 motivational figures, and recognize their enduring impact. Through their stories, we’re inspired to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion within our own professional spheres, ensuring a legacy of progress and empowerment for generations to come.

Learn more about IREM’s DEI initiatives, including our DISI Leaders program. Applications for DISI Leaders opened on February 20.

Sources and some additional reading:

Bridget “Biddy” Mason. National Park Service website entry. (Accessed 2.16.24)

Explore//Biddy Mason: From Enslaved to Entrepreneur. Gold Chains, the hidden history of slavery in California website. (Accessed 2.16.24)

Hassan, Adeel. (2019) “Philip A. Payton Jr. A real estate magnate who turned Harlem into a black mecca.” The New York Times. “Overlooked” entry. (Accessed 2.15.24)

McGruder, Kevin. (July 2021.)  “Philip Payton, The Father of Black Harlem.” Columbia University Press. (Accessed 2.15.24)

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