Bridget 'Biddy' Mason looked up at the judge deciding her future.
Hope, opportunity, the prospect of living a free life—the judge held it all in his hands. And she could not read what he was thinking.
She searched his face. Would Judge Benjamin Hayes give any sign, any hint, of the decision he would hand down soon? His expression remained stern. Was that firmness directed at herself or her enemy?
Biddy glanced over at the man who "owned" her life and her labor. Biddy had no trouble reading the expression on Robert M. Smith's face. Anger tightened every line around his eyes and his mouth.
She'd been given as a wedding gift to Robert Smith and his new wife, and she'd worked for years as a slave on their plantation in Mississippi. Biddy had worked bent over in the cotton fields, lifted heavy loads tending to the livestock and done skilled work as a midwife. All to benefit Robert Smith and his family.
Now, in a Los Angeles courtroom, she was suing him for her right to work for herself.
She'd risked everything for this moment on January 21, 1856. She desperately wanted freedom for herself, but even more, she wanted a different life for her three daughters. In addition, weighing heavily on her shoulders, was the fate of ten other slaves who had made the difficult trek from Mississippi to California.
When Robert Smith converted to the Mormon religion, he'd packed up his wife, children and his slaves to journey to Utah. Biddy walked for thousands of miles, breathing in the dust of the livestock she followed and tending to the needs of the group. Over the seven months on the trail, she also took care of her own children, a baby and two girls aged four and ten.
After three years in Utah, Smith joined a group of 150 wagons making their way to a new Mormon community in San Bernardino. Smith had underestimated what it would mean to bring slaves into California. Slavery was prohibited in the new state, but he'd seemed unable to comprehend that anyone would enforce that law.
Biddy's shoulders tensed as she thought about what was at stake. A young man from Los Angeles had fallen in love with Biddy's now seventeen-year-old daughter, Ellen. She wanted that happiness for her daughter—the ability to choose her husband. She didn't want Ellen to ever face having her children sold away and lost forever.
In this new land, people could take unexpected steps in search of their own destinies. The young man, Charles Owens, was the son of a Black pioneer in California who traded in horses and mules. Charles' father, Bob Owens, was a businessman, landowner and a cowboy who never backed down from a righteous fight. Together with the ten vaqueros who worked for him, he could be a formidable presence.
When Robert Smith became alarmed about losing his slaves in California, he packed up and started to head to the slave state of Texas. As they camped in the Santa Monica Mountains waiting for a baby to be born, Bob Owens, his vaqueros and a sheriff staged an ambush. They rescued Biddy, her family and friends and took them into protective custody. It was the only way to prevent Smith from taking the group out of California. In Texas, there would be no hope of escape.
It had required all of Biddy's courage to obtain a lawyer and sue for freedom. All she'd known since her birth on August 15, 1818 had been bondage. As a slave, she'd been forbidden to learn to read or write. Without the help of the Owens family and other free Blacks in California, she knew she might never have learned that California had entered the Union as a free state. Here, she had the opportunity to fight for freedom.
Threats, Bribery and Attempted Kidnapping
Now, Biddy searched the face of Judge Hayes again. Could she trust any authority after so many years of injustice? Even after the case came to court, Smith seemed incapable of accepting an outcome that failed to go his way. He'd threatened and bribed Biddy's lawyer until the man quit cold. An associate of Smith had even attempted to kidnap two of the children, but had been stopped in time. The actions of the sheriff gave her a small amount of hope, but the judge might want to please a more powerful group than slaves.
Judge Hayes cleared his throat now, signaling he was ready to announce his verdict. Biddy closed her eyes and prayed for protection for herself, her children and her friends.
She opened her eyes when Judge Hayes began speaking. At first, she could hardly comprehend his words. A growing warmth and a light in the eyes of her children confirmed she'd understood.
"...all of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom and are free forever."
Biddy vowed she would make certain the words Judge Hayes spoke would became the truth for the "petitioners to become settled and go to work for themselves...in peace and without fear."
A New Beginning
Biddy spent the rest of her life working to make sure she gave the judge's words as a heritage to her children and grandchildren. She put her midwifery skills to use in making a new start. She went to work as a midwife and nurse for a prominent physician, Dr. John Strother Griffin. She delivered hundreds of babies of all races and from every economic level. As she became known as an outstanding midwife, she saved her money, living frugally in rented houses.
After ten years, Biddy bought land, one of the first African-American women to buy property in Los Angeles. She worked more years to build a home for her family and, later, commercial enterprises.
Building a Community
Biddy became a Los Angeles pioneer herself, helping to build the city as a midwife, businesswoman, entrepreneur and real estate investor. Closest to Biddy's heart was her contribution as a philanthropist. In the truest sense of the word, Biddy was a woman who made an active effort to promote the well-being of humankind.
Bridget 'Biddy' Mason
Her contributions included nursing many through a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s, setting up a fund at a local market to help those in need, visiting prisoners and funding the first elementary school for African-American children in Los Angeles.
As her wealth increased, she donated many more hours and funds to benefit people of all races. She used her home to take in stranded and needy families new to the city, and acted as a resource and an advocate for them, just as the Owens family had done for her. Soon lines would form in the morning outside her home as people looked to Biddy for her help, wisdom and faith.
Soon after the court case ended, her daughter Ellen married Charles Owens. With her son-in-law, Biddy also helped found The First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.
On the day of Biddy's death on January 15, 1891, her grandsons had to turn away the people forming a line outside their home.
Gladys Owens Smith remembered these words she'd heard from her great-grandmother:
"If you hold your hand closed, Gladys, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives."
More to Explore
I grew up in southern California, but I had never heard Biddy Mason's extraordinary story until I clicked open a post by Our Daily Bread.
I was moved and intrigued by her story and wanted to know more about her. I found this helpful article supplied by the Interlibrary Loan Dept. of my local library:
Hayden, Dolores. "Biddy Mason's Los Angeles 1856-1891." California History 68.3 (1989): 86-99.
Linda Borromeo is the author of Mystery Shores. She is alsoa blogger who writes about historical lives of extraordinary courage and accomplishment. Find new posts by Linda on the first and third Friday of every month.