Springfield's black community during the second half of the nineteenth century was small but active. African Americans formed their own churches, operated local businesses, and were prominent in the abolitionist movement. Despite virulent racism and de facto segregation, many former slaves and their descendents were able to rise above their circumstances and exert a lasting influence on the local community. Primus Mason of Springfield provides an example of just such an individual.
Mason was born to free black parents in Monson, Massachusetts in 1817. To help support the family he was indentured as a young child to a farmer who regularly beat him. In 1837 Mason escaped to Springfield where he found work as a teamster and horse undertaker. That same year, he made his first real estate purchase, in what is now the Old Hill section of Springfield, with a loan for $50 from the seller. He continued investing in real estate and by 1849 he had amassed nearly $1,000, most of which he used to go west for the California gold rush. He did not make his fortune in California, but when he returned to Springfield he used his remaining capital to return to real estate investment.
Though he never received any formal education, Primus Mason possessed a shrewd business sense and a talent for recognizing the value of local real estate. He purchased a number of properties in the Hill area and gradually sold it to local developers for a substantial profit. By 1888, Mason was among the wealthiest citizens of Springfield.
Mason’s business acumen lay behind one of his greatest personal triumphs. Upon hearing that the farmer who had beat him as a child was about to purchase a piece of land, Mason bought the land first and sold it to the farmer at a much higher price.
Though Mason married three times and had one child, he outlived his entire family. It is possibly for this reason that, upon his death in 1892, Mason bequeathed the majority of his fortune to found Springfield’s first Home for Aged Men. The bequest placed no restrictions on who could live there, stipulating only that Mason wanted to "provide a place where old men that are worthy may feel at home."1 Though other philanthropists in Springfield were somewhat chagrined that a black man had founded such an institution, they respected Mason’s wishes. From the day it opened in a wood-frame house on Walnut Street in 1898, Springfield’s Home for Aged Men was a fully integrated institution in both its residential roster and its board of Trustees.
Primus Mason’s life reads like a typical rags-to-riches tale. In the nineteenth century United States, many enterprising individuals made their fortunes as industrialization and economic expansion transformed the country. Mason’s life was extraordinary, however, because he was the descendent of slaves. He lived in a free black community and was able to pursue a lucrative business career, but a wealthy black man was a rarity at the time. The Civil War ended the legal practice of slavery, but American society struggled long after with the question of equality for African Americans. Primus Mason achieved prominence despite the social and cultural forces arrayed against him. His legacy is alive today, in the Mason Square neighborhood that bears his name, and in the city where he lived his extraordinary life.
1 "Generosity of a Colored Man: Primus Mason Founded Old Men's Home" Boston Daily Globe28 Apr 1907: 48. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. U. of Massachusetts Lib., Amherst, MA.
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