“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” (Biddy Mason)
Bridget “Biddy” Mason lived her entire life with her hands always open to give. In return she received many blessings.
Biddy was born enslaved on August 15, 1818 in Macon County, Georgia. Although she was forbidden to learn how to read or write, she was able to learn skills that served her well throughout her life: How to tend to livestock, use herbs and roots to make medicine, nursing skills, and midwifery. When she was eighteen years old she was given as a wedding gift to Robert and Rebecca Smith. The Smiths, who were devout Mormons, decided to leave Logtown, Mississippi for a settlement in Salt Lake City, Utah. On March 10, 1848, Biddy, who had just given birth to her third daughter, had to walk behind the 300 covered wagons. During this long journey, Biddy tended to the sheep while carrying her infant daughter Harriet in her arms. Daughters Ellen and Ann walked beside her. She also cared for anyone who go sick along the way. The Smith household lived in Utah for three years. When the Mormon church leaders decided to establish a new post in San Bernardino, California, Robert Smith decided to move his family again. They arrived in San Bernardino in 1851.
California’s law prohibiting slavery did not prevent slaveholders from bringing their enslaved people into the state. Some owners, like Robert Smith, did not know that California was a free state. However, many owners were aware of the law but chose to ignore it. It was from her free Black friends that Biddy learned she and the rest were free. But when Smith found out, he decided to move to Texas. He moved his household to the Santa Monica mountains to wait until it was safe to leave. The sheriff found them and placed them in protective custody. Biddy sued Smith for her freedom on behalf of herself, her daughters and the other enslaved people. She testified to Judge Benjamin Hayes in the chamber of his courtroom. On January 21, 1856, Judge Hayes granted Biddy and her group their freedom.
Biddy accepted a position as nurse and midwife for Dr. John Strother Griffin. She delivered babies and nursed sick prisoners in the County Jail and the County Hospital. After ten years of hard work, Biddy saved enough money to purchase ten acres of land on Spring Street in Los Angeles for $250. This purchase made Biddy the first Black woman to own land in Los Angeles. She also purchased and sold various parcels of land near her homestead. Her smart investments enabled her to build a fortune worth $300,000; the estimated value of six million dollars in today’s economy. Her wealth allowed her to build schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and churches. She is the founder of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Biddy Mason passed away on January 15, 1891. In her obituary, the Los Angeles Times described Biddy as “a pioneer humanitarian who dedicated herself to forty years of good works.”
Biddy Mason should be remembered as a courageous, intelligent, and generous woman who never forgot her humble beginnings. Her open hands gave freely of her services and wealth to those far less fortunate than she.
Biddy Mason was truly an upstander.
Teachers, looking for ways to bring Biddy Masson into your curricula?
- It's important that all students see themselves reflected in the individuals who shaped our community, state, and country. Biddy Mason is one of those individuals! Include her whenever you're teaching about LA or California history. Want more LA-based women to incorporate? Consider Deborah Johnson and Zandra Rolon.
- Students sometimes think of enslavement as a practice only in the South. Including the history of Biddy Mason when you teach about enslavement can broaden understanding about the impact and lasting legacy across the USA. For more on defining freedom, consider this lesson from Facing History's unit for Teaching Reconstruction.
Deidre Robinson Powell is an English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, reading specialist, and self-published author. She has taught grades 4-8 in the Los Angeles Archdiocese for over three decades and will soon begin the next chapter of her career teaching high school English with California Connections Academy. Deidre uses literature and composition to explore social justice issues with her students. She is a member of the Facing History ELA Advisory Board for the Los Angeles network.