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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — August 2022: Bridget “Biddy” Mason

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery on August 15, 1818, in Hancock County, Georgia or Mississippi. At an early age, she was taken from her parents and moved to the plantation of a different slave owner. During her teenage years, she learned domestic and agricultural skills. Additionally, she developed skills in herbal medicine and midwifery taught to her by other female slaves. These skills were passed down from African, Caribbean, and Native American traditions. Her knowledge benefited both the slaves and the plantation owners.

Ms. Mason was forced to travel west with slave owners Robert and Rebecca Smith when they joined the Mormon migration to Utah. Ms. Mason had three children: Ellen born in 1838, Ann born in 1844, and Harriet born in 1847.

In 1848, Ms. Mason, then 30, walked 1,700 miles behind a 300-wagon caravan. Along the route, Ms. Mason was responsible for setting up and breaking camp, cooking the meals, herding cattle, and serving as a midwife. She also took care of her three young daughters, aged 10, 4, and a newborn.

In 1851, Smith moved his family once again. This time a 150-wagon caravan headed for San Bernardino, California. While California was supposedly a “free state,” Smith continued to hold Ms. Mason and her daughters captive.

While in California, Ms. Mason and her children befriended free Blacks who informed the L.A. County Sheriff that Smith was illegally holding slaves. Soonthereafter, Smith made plans to move to Texas, a state where slavery was still legal. The sheriff was alerted that the Smiths planned to illegally force Ms. Mason and her daughters to move to Texas with them. The sheriff gathered a posse and apprehended Smith’s wagon train in Cajon Pass, California, and took Ms. Mason and her family into protective custody under a writ of habeas corpus.

Ms. Mason challenged Smith for her freedom utilizing the court system. Judge Benjamin Hayes circumvented racist testimony laws that prevented Blacks from testifying against whites by interviewing Ms. Mason in his chambers. There, she said that she did not want to go back to the south with the Smiths. As a result, on January 21, 1856, Judge Hayes granted the writ, ruling “it further appearing by satisfactory proof to the judge here, that all of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom, and are free and cannot be held in slavery or involuntary servitude, it is therefore argued that they are entitled to their freedom and are free forever.”

Ms. Mason became a doctor’s assistant and ran a midwifery business. She accumulated a fortune worth about $7.5 million in today’s dollars, making her one of the richest women in Los Angeles at that time. She established a homestead in what became downtown Los Angeles. Ms. Mason used her wealth to establish a daycare center for working parents and created an account at a store where families who lost their homes in flooding could get supplies. She also co-founded and financed the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church, which still thrives to this day. Known as Grandma Mason, she died in 1891 and is honored through the Biddy Mason monument in downtown Los Angeles.

Ms. Mason was fond of saying, "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."


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