Bridget "Biddy" Mason (August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891) was an African-American nurse and a Californian real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She is the founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, California. She was born in Hancock County, Georgia.
Biddy Mason was born into slavery on August 15, 1818, in Hancock County, Georgia. She was given the name Bridget with no surname and was later nicknamed Biddy. Bridget was given to Robert Smith and his bride as a wedding present. After the wedding, Smith took his new wife to Mississippi and moved his slaves there.
Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) proselytized in Mississippi. They taught Smith and his family and they converted. Slaves were not baptized in the church as a matter of policy. Members were encouraged to free their slaves, but Smith chose not to do so.
The Smith household joined a group of other church members from Mississippi to meet the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1847. The group traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, and joined up with the sick detachment from the Mormon Battalion. They later joined the main body of Mormons crossing the plains and settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory.
Drawing of San Bernardino, 1852,
where she was illegally held captive in a Mormon settlement
Church leader Brigham Young sent a group of Mormons to Southern California in 1851. Robert Smith, his family, and his slaves joined them in San Bernardino, California, sometime later. Bridget was among a large group of slaves in the San Bernardino settlement. As part of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state and any slave who resided in the state or was born in the state was free. Bridget had lived in California for four years and some of the other slaves had been born in California, so they were covered by the law. Bridget wanted to be free, but was under the control of Robert Smith and ignorant of the laws and her rights.
In 1856, Smith decided to move to the slave state of Texas and sell his slaves there. He told his slaves that they would be free in Texas, but Bridget did not believe him. She did not want to go to Texas and was worried she would be separated from her children like she was from her mother.
Bridget, helped by friends, attempted to escape from Smith. She and a group of Smith's other slaves traveled towards Los Angeles before Smith caught up with them. He took her and the other slaves and camped in canyon near Santa Monica. One of his slaves, Hannah, was having a baby which made it difficult to travel. Lizzy Flake Rowan, who had also been kept in slavery with Biddy in San Bernardino but had since been set free, told Frank Dewitt, the sheriff of Los Angeles county, of Smith's plans (David W. Alexander was actually the sheriff of Los Angeles). He issued a writ of habeas corpus and sent a local posse, who caught up with Smith and took the slaves into protective custody.
Bridget petitioned a Los Angeles court for her freedom. Smith claimed that Bridget was her family and she wanted to go to Texas. He then bribed her lawyer to not show up. She was not allowed to testify in court, since California law prohibited black people from testifying against white people. The judge presiding over the case, Benjamin Ignatius Hayes, interviewed Bridget and found she did not want to go to Texas and granted her freedom as a resident of a free state, as well as the freedom of the other slaves held captive by Smith (Bridget's three daughters—Ellen, Ann, and Harriet—and ten other African-American women and children). In 1860, Mason received a certified copy of the document that guaranteed her freedom.
Bridget had no legal last name as a slave. After emancipation, she chose to be known as Bridget Biddy Mason. Bridget's surname, Mason, came from the middle name of Amasa Lyman, who was the mayor of San Bernadino and a Mormon Apostle; the Lyman household being one with which Bridget had spent a considerable amount of time.
After becoming free, she worked in Los Angeles as a nurse and midwife. One of her employers was the noted physician John Strother Griffin. Saving carefully, she was one of the first African Americans to purchase land in the city. As a businesswoman, she amassed a relatively large fortune of nearly $300,000, which she shared generously with charities. Mason also fed and sheltered the poor, and visited prisoners. She was instrumental in founding a traveler's aid center, and an elementary school for black children. Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her "Auntie Mason" or "Grandma Mason."
In 1872, Mason was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the city's first black church. The organizing meetings were held in her home on Spring Street. She donated the land on which the church was built. This land is now the site of Biddy Mason Park, a Los Angeles city park and site of an art installation describing her life.
Mason spoke fluent Spanish and was a well-known figure in the city. She dined on occasion at the home of Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California and a wealthy Los Angeles land owner.
Death and posthumous honors
After Mason's death on January 15, 1891, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Evergreen Cemetery in the neighborhood now known as Boyle Heights. On March 27, 1988, in a ceremony attended by the mayor of Los Angeles and members of the church she founded, the grave was marked with a tombstone.
Mason is an honoree in the California Social Work Hall of Distinction. She was also celebrated on Biddy Mason Day on November 16, 1989. One of artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's best-known pieces is "Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time,” an 82-foot concrete wall with embedded objects in downtown Los Angeles (near where Mason lived) that tells the story of Mason's life.
1. Hayden, Dolores (1995). The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. MIT Press. p. 274. Retrieved 5 May 2014. 1860 Census lists Mississippi, but 1870 and 1880 list Georgia as well as her LA Times obituary
2. "The Forgotten Pioneers". Part In Norma B. Ricketts, Crossroads, Vol. 8, No. 2 and 3 (Spring/Summer 1997).
3. "The Latter-Day Saints' Millennial Star, Volume 17". p. 63. Most of those who take slaves there pass over with them in a little while to San Bernardino... How many slaves are now held there they could not say, but the number relatively was by no means small. A single person had taken between forty and fifty, and many had gone in with smaller numbers.
4. Camille Gavin (2007). Biddy Mason: A Place of Her Own. America Star Books.
5. Benjamin Hayes. "Mason v. Smith". none of the said persons of color can read and write, and are almost entirely ignorant of the laws of the state of California as well as those of the State of Texas, and of their rights
6. Delilah Leontium Beasley (1919). The Negro Trail Blazers of California: A Compilation of Records from the California Archives in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, in Berkeley; and from the Diaries, Old Papers, and Conversations of Old Pioneers in the State of California. Times Mirror printing and binding house. p. 90.
7. Honey M. Newton, CNM. Zion's Hope: Pioneer Midwives and Women Doctors in Utah.
8. Mason v. Smith. "The Bridget 'Biddy' Mason Case" (1856).
9. Reiter, Joan S. (1978), The Old West: The Women, p. 213. Time-Life Books.
10. "Biddy Mason Park - Downtown Los Angeles Walking Tour". University of Southern California.
11. "Biddy Mason Park - the city project". UCLA - Remapping-LA. Archived from the original on 16 April 2014.
12. "African-Americans and the Early Pueblo of Los Angeles". City of Los Angeles. 2011. Archived from the original on 2013-04-04.
13. Greenstein, Albert (1999). "Bridget "Biddy" Mason". The Historical Society of Southern California. Archived from the original on 3 March 2013.
14. "From Slavery to Entrepreneur, Biddy Mason". African American Registry. Thursday, November 16, 1989 was declared Biddy Mason Day and a memorial of her achievements was unveiled at the Broadway Spring Center located between Spring Street and Broadway at Third Street in Los Angeles.
15. "Betye Saar, "Biddy Mason: A Passage of Time" and "Biddy Mason: House of the Open Hand"; Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, "Biddy Mason: Time and Place", Los Angeles". Publicartinla.com.
16. "Brooklyn Museum on Biddy Mason: Time and Place
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