Biddy Mason: An American Pioneer
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Biddy Mason was born, enslaved, in Hancock, Georgia in 1818. Her owner, Robert Smith, later moved to Mississippi where he became acquainted with the Mormon religion. The mid-1800s were a tumultuous time in American politics and 1850 was an important year, in many ways.
Unbeknownst to Biddy Mason, decisions being made about California and Utah were about to have a significant impact on her life.
In Congress, the Compromise of 1850 allowed California to be admitted into the Union as a free state...it also amended the Fugitive Slave Act, ended the sale of slaves in Washington, D.C. and created the territorial governments of New Mexico and Utah.
The new territory in Utah was not a state, but it was assigned a governor to oversee its administrative duties. Brigham Young, the leader of the Later-day Saints (Mormon) Church, was appointed as the first governor of the territory of Utah. This decision made many people, who had converted to the Mormon faith, move to Utah to be closer to their leader and to the establishment of this new territory.
Robert Smith had already converted to Mormonism and, sometime before all of this happened, he moved himself, and the slaves he owned, to the territory of Utah.
It was a two thousand-mile journey from Mississippi to Utah and, of course, it had to be done by wagon, horseback, and by foot. Biddy Mason was forced to go on this trip, with Robert Smith, and had several duties to perform along the way. Biddy also had daughters—one eleven years old, one four years old, and one under a year old. In addition to taking care of her daughters, Biddy had to herd the cattle throughout this long journey; she had to prepare meals; and she performed midwife duties.
Once they arrived in Utah, Robert Smith settled there for several years. He then decided to go to California to join a Mormon settlement in San Bernardino County; this was another six hundred-mile journey during which Biddy walked behind a train of wagons, while again herding cattle.
Once in California, Biddy Mason and some of the other slaves Robert Smith brought with him, befriended members of the free black community, there.
Robert Smith remained in California for four years, but when he decided that he no longer wanted to live in California and that he wanted to move to Texas, free African-Americans came to the aid of Biddy and the others.
Robert Smith was stopped by the sheriff of Los Angeles, when he was on his way out of town, and was served with a writ of habeas corpus. The matter was reviewed in the U.S. District Court of the County of Los Angeles and the judge determined that the:
"..said persons of color are entitled to their freedom, and are free and cannot be held in slavery or involuntary servitude..."
...given that California was a free state.
Thus on January 19, 1856, Biddy Mason, her three children (Ellen, Ann and Harriet), and ten other people who were enslaved by Robert Smith were freed.
Biddy Mason got a job as a midwife and nurse and began to save up her money. She eventually purchased property at 331 South Spring Street in what is now downtown Los Angeles. She was a smart woman and purchased additional properties, which grew in value as the city of Los Angeles grew.
For instance, she purchased and then reportedly sold one of her properties (a forty-foot lot) for $12,000, which was a considerable sum, as you can imagine, at that time. She amassed a great amount of wealth and her children and grandchildren also shared in her wisdom as they, too, managed the real estate that she gave them and sold their land for profits.
Biddy Mason became a well-known philanthropist. During a flood in the early 1880s, many people in the area lost their homes. Biddy contracted with a local grocery store and bought food for a good deal of the families who were made homeless by the flood. She also visited prisons and became known as Grandma Mason, in the community.
She helped to start the oldest African-American church in Los Angeles, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872. The church is still in existence today and has over 19,000 members.
Grandma Mason also operated one of the city's first day care centers and she opened her home to new settlers, who were in need of help, as they came to the city of Los Angeles.
Today, the location of her original home is a historic site in Los Angeles. Biddy Mason was an American pioneer.
© 2015 and 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.
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© 2015 and 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.
Beasley, Delilah. The Negro Trail Blazers of California. Los Angeles, CA: 1919.
First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, http://www.famechurch.org, accessed February 2014.
Library of Congress. Primary Documents in American History. The Compromise of 1850. http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Compromise1850.html, accessed February 2014.
National Park Service. A History of Black Americans in California: HISTORIC SITES, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/5views/5views2h14.htm, accessed February 2014.
Dr. Taylor, Quintard, Scott and Dorothy Bullitt, Professor of American History, Primary Documents: MASON v. SMITH (THE BRIDGET "BIDDY" MASON CASE), 1856, http://faculty.washington.edu/qtaylor/documents_us/mason_v_smith.htm, accessed February 2014.
USC Dornsife, College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. Downtown Los Angeles Walking Tour. Biddy Mason Park, Broadway and Spring Street, between 3rd and 4th street http://dornsife.usc.edu/la-walking-tour/biddy-mason-park/, accessed February 2014.
Utah Division of State History. Utah's Territorial Governors (1850-1896), http://www.ilovehistory.utah.gov/people/difference/territorial_govs.html, accessed February 2014.