Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born a slave in Georgia in 1818. To be a slave meant she and every member of her family, not “free” belonged to someone, just as that someone also owned a home, horses, cattle and other possessions.
And as a possession, a slave had no legal rights. He or she could be beaten, tortured, raped or anything else the owner chose to do. Slave marriages had no legal standing and family members could be put on an auction block at any time, stripped naked for inspection and sold.
When Biddy was a baby, her owner took her from her family and sold her to a Mississippi slave owner. As in most cases, her parents surely cried and begged the master not to sell her but their heartache and sobbing fell on deaf ears, for there was money to be made. Her family never saw her again.
As Biddy grew up, she became an expert nurse, assigned to care for slaves and livestock. But as bright and knowledgeable as she was, being a slave meant she could not attend school for it was illegal for slaves to be taught to read and write which could sow the seeds of a slave revolt.
At 18, her owner gave Biddy as a wedding gift to Robert Marion Smith and his bride Rebecca. As Smith’s property, he could do with her as he liked and among his demands he required sex. Over the next 10-years, she gave birth to three daughters, the latter two he fathered.
How could a slave owner do this? Not only did slaves have no legal rights but they had overseers who kept them in line through whippings, the threat of mutilation or death to them or their families or simply to sell them on behalf of the owner.
Ironically, Smith later went through a great personal religious rebirth and he became a Mormon, presumably deeply caring for the well-being of others. He packed up his family and Biddy and his other slaves and possessions and went across the country to Utah in a wagon train. The wagon train had 56 white men, women and children and 34 slaves.
For seven long hard months, Biddy walked in back of the wagons, through the dust and the heat, and at other times she was pelted by rain and sloshed through the mud, as she carried her baby on her back, and cared for her other two daughters, ages 10 and 4. Biddy’s primary responsibility was to care for the Smith’s six children and help heard the 300 livestock.
Having reached the Promised Land, for three years the Smiths and their slaves lived in Salt Lake City, the heart of the Mormon community. Smith was so devoted a Mormon, that when the church decided to build a church and trading post in San Bernardino, CA, he and his slaves were among a wagon train of 437 people that in 1851 made the 800-mile journey.
Most of that journey was across some of the hottest, most desolate scorching desert sands in the world. Once again Biddy and the other slaves walked and worked all the way, as the wagon train reached San Bernardino.
In San Bernardino, for the next four years Biddy, her daughters and the other 10 slaves continued to live and work under the iron clad rule of Smith. But California was a “free” state and Smith had no legal right to enslave them.
Afraid he would loose his slaves Smith packed up his family and all of his possessions including his slaves and began to move everyone to Texas, where slave ownership was legal.
To make this long 1,500 mile journey, they needed to go through Los Angeles to buy supplies. To avoid detection he had slaves, Smith hid them nearby. But a freed slave tipped the County Sheriff who seized the slaves and petitioned the court for a trial to free them.
On Jan. 19, 1856 Biddy as the leader of the 14 slaves joined their court appointed attorney in the court room. But being black, even in California, she was not allowed to testify. The judge instead invited her and two other witnesses into his chambers to speak with him.
Meanwhile, to influence what they would tell the judge, Smith and his overseer threatened them and tried to grab some of the children and Smith even tried to bribe the court appointed attorney to lose the case. But when the judge found out what Smith and his overseer were doing, he was furious and both men fled California before charges could be filed against them.
The judge then ruled, “All of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom and are free forever.”
For Biddy and the other slaves, this proved to be a very timely decision for a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Dred Scott decision that a slave was a possession, not a person, and that a slave living in a free territory was still property and legally should be returned to the owner.
But Biddy and her children were now free. For the first 37-years of her life she had been a slave and her children also belonged to Smith. Just as she had been sold as an infant, never to see her family again, her children could also have been sold off. No more.
Recognizing her outstanding medical skills, a Los Angeles doctor hired Biddy to be a nurse and paid her well. For the next 10-years, she delivered hundreds of babies and nursed many patients through small pox and numerous other severe diseases.
All the while, Biddy saved her money and in 1866, bought her first Los Angeles property and built a home for herself and her family. She also used that home to help those in need and to host the city’s first black church. People of all colors were welcome in her home.
As the years passed, Biddy kept saving her money and buying more real estate and she became very wealthy. Biddy donated to local churches and charities and visited the jail to bring hope and good cheer to prisoners along with food she cooked for them.
Then in 1884, a tremendous rain storm swept through Los Angeles destroying homes and turning the fields to mud, killing the crops and leaving vast numbers of people homeless and threatened with starvation. Responding immediately, Biddy donated a large sum of money to a downtown store to provide free food and supplies to anyone who needed it.
People in Los Angeles had long known she had a big heart but after rescuing so many of them from the ravages of that storm, she became a local hero. When Biddy Mason passed away at the age of 72 in 1891, she was widely loved and respected and her death was mourned by the entire community.
What made Biddy so successful was not simply being rich. It was that she had long ago forgiven those who had sold her from her family and enslaved her for the first half of her life. She opened her heart to everyone, regardless of race or religion, and was generous to all.
“If you hold your hand closed,” Biddy said, “nothing can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.”