I was researching Mormons and slavery when I came across the amazing Bridget “Biddy” Mason.
Biddy was born a slave in 1818 (sources say in Mississippi or Georgia), yet she would die in Los Angeles in 1891, free from slavery and one of the richest women in Southern California.
At age 18, she was given to the Smiths as a wedding gift.
With one of her children on her back, she walked the entire trek which took about 7 months.…in 1848, with a wagon train’s “Roll ‘em out!,” Biddy’s master, Robert Smith, moved his family from Mississippi to the new Mormon “City of the Saints” by the Great Salt Lake. All day, every day, Biddy walked behind her master’s covered wagons in the dust and mud made by wagon wheels and hooves, keeping watch on his animals. When the wagons stopped at night, she cooked meals over the campfire, washed clothes in the river and nursed anyone who was sick.
Two and a half years after they reached Utah Territory, Mr. Smith was sent to help the new Mormon settlement in San Bernardino. They arrived in California in 1851.
Mr. Smith soon learned that California was a free state. He didn’t tell this to his 14 slaves, but Biddy saw other black people working for themselves. She talked to them, and she discovered something in California that was better than gold. She discovered she could be free.
Biddy had been a slave her entire life. She couldn’t read or write, she didn’t have a penny in her pocket, and she had three daughters to care for. But Biddy wanted to be free. She wanted her daughters to be free.
Mr. Smith wanted them to be slaves, his slaves.
So, in December 1855, he began a move to the slave state of Texas. Biddy did not want to go.
One of her friends, black businessman, Robert Owens, alerted the local sheriff to the presence of slaves, and the sheriff placed Smith’s slaves in jail for protection.
Then Biddy talked to Judge Benjamin Hayes in his office at the Los Angeles County Courthouse. (She wasn’t allowed to speak in the courtroom because she was black. [SOME “FREE” STATE, HUH?]) In January 1856, Judge Hayes ruled that Biddy, her daughters and all Mr. Smith’s slaves were “free forever … to work for themselves in peace and without fear.”
Biddy was free. Now she needed a last name, a place to live and a job. She took the name “Mason,” perhaps from one of the Mormon trailblazers.
Biddy and her daughters stayed with Owens and his family and began working as a nurse.
Dr. Griffin paid Biddy Mason $2.50 a day, and she saved every penny. She dreamed of owning something a slave could never own — land. By 1866, Biddy had saved $250. She bought a piece of land with vineyards and willow trees out in the country, on 3rd and Spring streets.
Biddy had two little houses built on her property to rent. She kept saving her money and she bought more property. By the 1880s, people were flooding into Los Angeles. They needed land. Biddy’s land became very valuable, and she sold some of it.
Soon Biddy Mason was rich. She could buy anything she wanted. And what she wanted was something that gave her great joy — she wanted to help others.
She continued to doctor people, but now she did it free. She paid for things churches needed but couldn’t afford. She visited prisoners in the county jail, took them food and prayed with them. She was one of the founders of the First AME Church of Los Angeles. She taught other women how to be nurses and midwives. She started a school and day-care center for children, bought groceries for people in need and took those who were homeless into her home.