I’ll admit it; it wasn’t until a few months ago that I learned who Biddy Mason was, and being that I am a Southern California/Los Angeles native I feel deeply embarrassed. As it so happened The Huntington Gardens & Library was holding a lecture centered around slavery, Mormonism, and more specifically Biddy Mason’s large contributions to the infrastructure of Los Angeles and although I had no idea who she was, I was immediately intrigued.
I sent out a group text to my mother and sister to see if they wanted to join me since just a few months prior we had enjoyed another lovely free lecture at The Huntington regarding slavery and its global impact on the world economy. As I expected, they were just as eager as myself and so we planned to make an evening of it, inviting my grandparents and going out to dinner beforehand.
The subject of slavery has always been profoundly interesting to my family and me. Despite it’s dark and disturbing truths that in someways covertly linger in the shadows of modern society, I the history and impact of slavery is something I find to be extremely enriching and important to understand. As painful as it is to realize that people who looked like us were dehumanized and reduced to something as objective as chattel, what continues to give me strength is this:
If you are a descendant of any slave and apart of the African diaspora then you are a product of some of the strongest most determined people to ever exist.
In a situation where the mortality rate was extremely high and subsequently the life expectancy of a slave was extremely low, it makes it seem nearly improbable that anyone would have been able to continue a bloodline for generations to come. Yet, here we stand! So, the fact that we are the descendants of survivors of one of the most horrendous global atrocities speaks to the resilience and sacrifice of many that I honestly cannot comprehend to this day.
This is why it is imperative that I make the most of my life and my opportunities, and continue to educate myself so that I don’t take the privilege of freedom and life-long learning for granted. With that being said, here’s what I learned about the miraculous story of Biddy Mason.
The early life of Biddy Mason
Biddy Mason was born into slavery on August 15, 1818. Though there is still debate as to where her place of origin truly was, we know that she was born in Hancock County (in either Georgia or Mississippi). From a very early age, she was separated from her parents and like many slaves her records are incomplete, so we are left to speculate several things about her childhood. What we do know is that she eventually moved to a plantation owned by James Smithson and spent a majority of her formative years there.
Under the tutelage of other slaves, Biddy learned and developed skills in herbal medicine, and midwifery which she excelled at and is what eventually made her such a valuable asset on the plantation. Her teachings were a powerful combination of African, Caribbean and Native American traditions and her practice not only helped to heal other slaves but also the plantation owners and their families. In the 1840’s she was given to the Smith's as a wedding gift and because of her deep knowledge of healing, childcare, and agricultural/livestock care she would become a true asset to the Smith family who were her last owners until she petitioned her freedom.
From the South to the West
In 1847 the Smith family converted to the Mormon faith and joined several other church families on a long trek westward to meet the Mormon exodus in Nauvoo Illinois. From Illinois, the caravan traveled further west to Pueblo Colorado and eventually, the wagon company converged with the main body of Mormons living in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory. During their travels, Biddy was paramount to the party; she midwifed, tended to cattle, and prepared meals, all while raising several children of her own.
In 1851 church leader Brigham Young sent several Mormon families further westward to secure a Mormon settlement in Southern California. The traveling party eventually settled in San Bernardino and became one of the largest slave settlements in California. Although slavery was technically illegal in California, contrary to most beliefs, the practice of owning humans wasn’t that uncommon there. In fact, California’s attorney general was a southern man himself and was quite partial to those who owned slaves.
Like many laws today that favor the elite and disenfranchise the poor/minorities, there was a loophole in the system that made it legal to have slaves in California. Basically, as long as a slave owner showed the intent of eventually moving back to a southern state for permanent residence, they could bring their slaves with them to the freed state.
Nearing the end of the Smith family’s time in San Bernadino a dispute broke out regarding the ownership of land that Robert Smith had accumulated. This fight between Smith and other members of the Mormon settlement caused Smith to uproot his family and slaves to flee to Texas. Although he had lost his wealth in the land his plan was to sell his very valuable slaves in Texas to supplement the losses.
Though he nearly got away, sheriffs tipped off by the other Mormon settlers were able to catch up with the fleeing party and confiscated Biddy and the other slaves and sent them back to San Bernardino while a trial was to insue.
(click here for more about the Mormon colony)
Fighting for freedom
Biddy Manson being granted her freedom was essentially a fluke! Due to the misinterpretation of the law, and the fact that Mr. Smith was too intimidated to actually appear in court for the trial, meant that Biddy and the other slaves could walk free. This amazing turn of events changed Biddy’s life forever and as a black woman raised in Southern California I am forever grateful and inspired.
Life After freedom
After being freed Biddy once again used her talents as a midwife and caretaker. She became a nurse and through her deep knowledge of herbal medicine she even risked her life to save those suffering from a smallpox outbreak in Los Angeles. After years of saving, Biddy had accumulated quite a fortune. At the time her wealth amassed to roughly $300,000 (the equivalent of over several million dollars today). With her earnings, Biddy not only purchased several properties (making her the one of 1st African American woman to own land in Los Angeles), but she was also extremely generous with her earnings as well.
Biddy Mason was known to have been very charitable:
-taking in orphaned children & the poor/destitute with nowhere else to go
-visiting & tending to prisoners
-starting the 1st black church in Los Angeles, donating the very land it was built on.
- opening a daycare/school for black children
-founding a travelers aid center for those in need
It was clear that Biddy’s life mission was to be of service to anyone who was disenfranchised. The biggest takeaway from her life’s journey is that our lives should not be defined by where we started. It isn’t until we are able to look back in retrospect, that we actually see clearly what our purpose has become and what our impact has been. Biddy Mason is the true embodiment of sacrifice. Her ability to have the foresight to leave behind a legacy of positive change that can be felt for generations to come is something that we can all learn from and begin to implement in our lives today.