“Biddy” spent nearly forty years as a slave for a Mississippi slave master. She never learned to read or write. And yet she saved her midwife salary to become a wealthy Black real estate magnate…and revered philanthropist.
It’s quite the story. It’s also an inspiring tale that proves it’s not how you start life that matters as much as how you finish it.
Her name was “Biddy.”
But her real name was Bridget Mason. She was born into slavery in August 1818 and had several masters. She was eventually sold to Robert and Rebecca Smith in Mississippi. Biddy proved highly useful for her knowledge of childcare, livestock and medicine.
In 1847, the entire Smith family converted to Mormonism and pulled up stakes to move West with Brigham Young. Biddy traveled with her slave owners from Mississippi to eastern Illinois, on to Colorado, and eventually Salt Lake City, Utah. She was among 34 slaves in the wagon train and she walked the entire 1700 miles, arriving in 1848.
Three years later, Brigham Young commissioned some Mormons to emigrate to California to birth a new Mormon outpost. The Smith family, along with Biddy, were part of that 1851 wagon train, but there was a problem.
California was a free state.
Once Biddy crossed into the Golden State, she was no longer a slave. But that fact didn’t matter to her master. He ignored the California law. Besides, Biddy was illiterate so the Smiths could easily keep her unaware…and so she remained enslaved.
In 1856, Smith decided to move again…this time to Texas (a slave state). That’s when Biddy spoke up. The move would mean separation from her children. She confessed these fears to two free Black men who informed her of California law. That’s when Biddy sued Robert Smith for emancipation.
During the court hearings, her master proved ruthless. He gave false testimony and claimed Biddy wanted to relocate to Texas. He bribed her lawyer to miss court dates. Biddy was also unable to personally testify due to a California law that prohibited Blacks from speaking in court against Whites.
But justice for Biddy (and her family) still came. The judge liberated her from Smith after 38 years of slavery.
Biddy was still in the prime of life. A free Black woman with three daughters. She immediately found work as a nurse and midwife. She lived lean and saved every penny she earned. With her savings she bought some land.
Biddy was one of the first Black women to own real estate in Los Angeles.
Over time, her real estate investments grew, and Biddy became rich. She used her great wealth to shelter and feed the impoverished and imprisoned. Mason funded a “traveler’s aid center,” day cares and schools for children. She also helped found (and build) the first African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. Biddy once paid the grocery bill for an entire community made homeless by a flood. Every day people lined up at her home, seeking her financial assistance…and she helped as she could.
Biddy often confessed, “If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” That’s how she lived every day of her life.
Biddy’s generous charity made her a rich woman.
In her final years of life, Mason’s financial holdings exceeded $300,000 (around $9.2 million today).
Biddy died January 15, 1891. She passed as a revered citizen of Los Angeles and was awarded several distinctions, including memorial parks, murals, and even a day (November 16) named in her honor.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Former Slave. Real Estate Entrepreneur. Christian Philanthropist.
And now you know the rest of HERstory.
- “Biddy Mason” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biddy_Mason
- Beasely, Delilah L. The Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles: 1919): 90, 109, 110, 117. Available for download at Google books.
- Martineau Wagner, T. (2007, July 12). Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mason-bridget-biddy-1818-1891/