The Kid Should See This

The remarkable journey of Bridget “Biddy” Mason

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Californian real estate mogul and philanthropist Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born in 1818. Eighteen years later, she was forced into servitude under Mississippi enslavers Robert and Rebecca Smith. When they moved their family to Salt Lake City, she was one of 19 enslaved people who made the 1,700-mile journey on foot. Two years later, the Smiths moved the household to San Bernardino, California.

California’s status as a free state rendered Smith’s possession of Mason illegal. When Smith attempted to abscond with Mason and her family to Texas, her free Black friends Robert and Minnie Owens sprang into action. From the National Park Service:

“Robert Owens thus told the Los Angeles County Sheriff that Mason and others were being illegally kept in bondage. A posse including Owens, his sons, and hands from the Owens’ ranch detained Smith’s wagon train at Cajon Pass and prevented him from leaving California.”

Bridget Biddy Mason

“Within a month, Biddy Mason petitioned the court for her freedom and that of her extended family. Throughout the trial, Smith denied any wrongdoing. Yet even though she could not testify publicly against Smith, Mason prevailed. Judge Benjamin Hayes deliberated for three days before granting freedom to Mason and her family, citing the prohibition of slavery that had been part of California’s first constitution in 1850.”

Via BlackPast.org, the Mason v. Smith ruling was a year before the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857.

Biddy Mason treats the sick, a mural
Mason’s daughter Ellen soon married young Charles Owens, and the entire family moved in with the Owens family. The National Museum of African American History and Culture continues the story:

“Using her skills as a nurse and midwife, she assisted with hundreds of births to mothers of diverse races and social classes; such skills helped lead to Mason’s financial independence. By 1866, she was able to purchase a house and sizable property at South Spring Street, becoming one of the first African American women in Los Angeles to own land.”

Mason's first home
In the New Hampshire Department of Education video above, episode 4 of their Stories of Courage series, entrepreneur and educator Ian Rowe explains:

“She later sold her property, reinvested it, and started growing her real estate holdings. Biddy then used her fortune to benefit her neighbors, to help those who were poor. She founded an elementary school for Black children, an orphanage, and the Los Angeles First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She was quoted saying, ‘If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, as it gives in abundance, even as it receives.'”

Biddy Mason and the AME Church
Descendants of the Mason-Owens union went on to become some of the most influential voices in Los Angeles and the west coast at the end of the 19th century.

Watch these related videos next:
β€’ The breathtaking courage of Harriet Tubman
β€’ What is Juneteenth?
β€’Β Elizabeth Freeman and James Armistead, American heroes during the Revolutionary War
β€’Β Reconstruction: The Vote – Black History in Two Minutes (or So)


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