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Mason, Biddy (1818–1891)

Mason, Biddy (1818–1891)

American woman, born into slavery, who became a successful businesswoman and philanthropist . Name variations: Bridget Mason. Born on August 15, 1818, in Georgia or Mississippi; died on January 15, 1891, in Los Angeles, California; children: Ellen Mason Owens ; Ann Mason ; Harriet Mason .

Biddy Mason's remarkable life serves as a paradigm for the unchronicled lives of millions of women who endured hardship, overcame legal obstacles, and prospered through their own good sense. Mason was born into slavery in 1818, probably in Georgia or Mississippi; it is known for certain only that she was named Bridget upon her birth, and that she was the property of Robert and Rebecca Crosby Smith , Mississippi plantation owners. She gained a great deal of knowledge about midwifery and the folk arts from other slave women and healers, and became a well-regarded midwife. At age 20, she became a mother herself with the first of three daughters. The rape of female slaves by their male owners was not an uncommon occurrence in the antebellum South, and it is thought that Robert Smith may have been the father of Mason's daughters.

Robert Smith converted to the Mormon faith in 1847 and decided to move to the Utah Territory. With his extended family and their large retinue—90 in all—Mason traveled the 2,000 miles from Mississippi on foot. Slaves did not travel in the wagons, and one of her jobs was to keep track of the animals. With no choice but to accompany her owner, Mason perhaps believed her lot might improve in the new American West, but found that the Mormons who had settled the Utah Territory were greatly prejudiced against blacks. In 1851, Robert Smith moved the entourage to a more liberal Mormon enclave in San Bernardino, California; he was apparently unaware that the state's 1849 constitution prohibited slavery. This prohibition did not, however, automatically grant freedom to newly arrived slaves, whose legal status was murky. Some time later, unwilling to take the chance that he might be forced to give up his "property," Smith began making plans to relocate the entourage to Texas, where slavery was still legal.

Mason's teenage daughter Ellen and a friend of hers, the daughter of another of Smith's slaves named Hannah, had begun dating two free black men, Charles Owens and Manuel Pepper. Mason told the men of her desire to live as a free person outside the brutal constraints of slavery. Pepper and Owens, the son of an esteemed business owner in Los Angeles' African-American community, enlisted the aid of sheriffs to serve Smith with a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Mason. Because an 1850 state law prohibited blacks, mulattos, and Native Americans from testifying in court against whites (both in civil and in criminal cases), Mason was not permitted to speak on her own behalf when the case came to court. However, the judge met with her privately and listened to her story. When Robert Smith failed to appear in court on January 21, 1856, the judge not only granted Mason's petition for manumission but freed the other members of her family as well.

Now free citizens, Mason and her family accepted the Owens family's invitation to take up residence with them in Los Angeles (Ellen Mason and Charles Owens would later marry). Mason quickly gained renown as an excellent midwife, assisting at hundreds of births of African-Americans, whites and Native Americans of all social classes. After just ten years of freedom, she had managed to save enough money to buy her own home on Spring Street in the city, making her one of the first African-American women to own property in Los Angeles. She deemed it her "homestead," and instructed her children that it should never pass from their hands. She accrued further savings to purchase more land, and in 1884 had a commercial property built in the downtown section of the city. The income from this and other shrewd investments gave Mason a fund from which to indulge her philanthropic bent. She became well known in Los Angeles for her relief aid to people of all colors who had encountered hardship, and visited the city jails frequently. With Charles Owens, in 1872 she hosted a meeting at her home of what became the founding congregation of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

Biddy Mason died in Los Angeles in January 1891 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, in an unmarked grave. In 1988, her memory was honored with a proper gravestone bestowed in a ceremony involving Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and several thousand members of the city's First A.M.E. Church. A community center in Los Angeles, the Broadway Spring Center, features an 81-foot long mural that depicts Mason's lifetime of achievement, and her homestead has been preserved as a historical site.

sources:

Igus, Toyomi, ed. Book of Black Heroes, Volume Two: Great Women in the Struggle. Just Us Books, 1991.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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