On August 15, 1818, Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born a slave. She was the property of several owners in several states. Her birthplace is unknown but she was owned by slave owners who lived in South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. Robert Smith was her last slave owner who lived in Mississippi. As a young girl, Biddy learned domestic, medicinal, and midwifery skills from fellow enslaved black women, these skills made Biddy a valued slave for the Smith family. Biddy was the mother of three girls born into slavery. Because of the high likelihood of sexual assault and slave breeding, the fathers of Biddy’s girls are unknown. Robert Smith converted to Mormonism around 1847 after a group of Mormon missionaries convinced him to follow the teachings. Because of Smith’s conversion to Mormonism, he, his family, and his slaves migrated West to the Salt Lake Valley, Utah, which became Salt Lake City, Utah.
The migration to Utah was grueling for Biddy, it is said that she walked over 1,700 miles behind a 300-wagon caravan, along with 33 other enslaved black people. During the trip to Utah, Biddy's responsibilities were cooking meals, midwifery, herding cattle, and setting up and breaking down the camp's tents, all while still having to care for her three children, one being an infant. When Smith’s camp settled in Utah, Biddy and the other enslaved blacks were forced to build log cabins and clear the land, which was the foundation for the cities of Cottonwood and Salt Lake City. The leader of the Mormon church Brigham Young instructed a number of his followers to move to California to spread Mormonism further west, Robert Smith was one of Young’s followers to move west. The caveat to moving to California specifically was that slavery was illegal in California. The religious leader Bringham Young was not opposed to slavery and warned his followers moving to California that there may be a chance they lose their slaves due to the laws. In 1851, despite the warning about losing his slaves, Smith, his family, and his slaves packed up once more and moved to California. The Smith family settled in San Bernadino, California. While in California Biddy learned from Charles and Elizabeth Rowan, free blacks, that California was a free state and she could sue for her freedom. Many blacks were earning their freedom through the California courts once their slave masters moved to the state.
California was potentially offering Biddy Mason something she wanted her whole life, freedom. After learning about California’s laws against slavery from the Rowans, Biddy befriended more free blacks, Robert and Minnie Owens who gave her more information about suing for her freedom. In 1855, Robert Smith was becoming very worried about losing his slaves so he decided to move to Texas. Robert Owens’ son was involved in a romantic relationship with one of Biddy’s daughters, so they were motivated to help Biddy gain her freedom and remain in California. As Robert Smith was beginning to leave for Texas, Robert Owens alerted the
Los Angeles County Sheriff that Rober Smith was illegally harboring slaves in the state. The Los Angeles Sheriff, Robert Owens, Robert's son, and many other men made up the group of men responsible for stopping Robert Smith from leaving California with slaves. Robert Smith was served with a court order for having slaves. Smith in a futile attempt to defend himself and retain his slaves, began to make-up stories about Biddy wanting to move to Texas. Smith even attempted to bribe Biddy’s lawyer to not show up in court. The trial was held on January 21, 1856, in Los Angeles. At the time blacks were not allowed to appear in court so Biddy did not attend the trial, but a blessing came her way when Robert Smith chose not to show up for the trial. Because of Smith’s absence, the Judge ruled in favor of Biddy Mason. Biddy, along with her family, and other blacks enslaved by Smith was freed by the Judge. The California courts gave Biddy a certified copy of her freedom papers in 1860. Biddy and her daughters moved to Los Angeles and lived with the Owens family for a time. Her daughter and the son of Robert Owens eventually married.
Biddy was able to work in Los Angeles as a midwife, she also used her knowledge of herbs to help fight a smallpox outbreak in Los Angeles, while working with the physician Dr. John Strother Griffin. While working as a midwife and also working with Dr. Griffin, Biddy was wise with her money and aggressively saved, eventually, she became one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. Over time, Biddy used her money to engage in several businesses which helped her to amass wealth, making her one of the wealthiest black women in Los Angeles. She used her wealth to help open a traveler's aid center, a school, daycare and fed the poor. In her spare time, she would visit prisoners to give them encouragement. She was a part of the founding group of the first black church in Los Angeles, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. In typical Biddy fashion, she donated the land the church was built on. Biddy died on January 15, 1891, leaving behind a legacy of resilience, spirit, encouragement, and empowerment. She was so generous that she was often called “Aunt Biddy” affectionately by her community. This is the fascinating story of Bridget Biddy Mason. Ms. Biddy Mason, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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