The Open Hand
Compendium No. 7: Bridget "Biddy" Mason
“He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched land into flowing springs; then he brought the hungry to live, and they founded a city where they could settle.”
Psalm 107:35-36 TNIV
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery on October 15, 1818. Much of her history is unwritten, but we do know that she was originally owned by the Mason family who had a cotton plantation in Hancock County, Georgia. Her journey from Georgia to Los Angeles is also obscure. Sometime between 1844 and the spring of 1848 she was purchased by Robert Mays Smith, a South Carolinian who had used his inheritance to start a new life in the state of Mississippi. When Smith converted to Mormonism, he became embroiled in a wider persecution of Mormons in that state. As a result, he moved his family and possessions from Mississippi to Utah and then to California in search of a better life. They arrived in the state of California on June 9, 1851, and eventually Biddy Mason found herself in the city of Los Angeles.
In December of 1855, Smith was taking steps for another move, this time to the state of Texas. When the Los Angeles County Sheriff heard that slaves were going to be moved from California, a free state, to Texas, a state that allowed slavery, he gathered a posse and apprehended Smith's wagon train in an area known as the Cajon Pass in California. After three days of deliberating, Los Angeles District Judge Benjamin Hayes handed down a ruling that freed Mason, citing California's 1850 constitutional prohibition of slavery. From the day of her release, Biddy proudly carried a certified court order stating that she held "freedom for life".
A video about Biddy Mason, for my book, “God in LA LA Land,” available here.
On February 2, 1856 the Los Angeles Star carried an article about freed slaves including Mason. The article reported that “The plaintiffs claiming their freedom were discharged and have hired themselves in different families in the city.” Biddy worked as a nanny and a nurse. After 10 years of saving a portion of her income, she purchased her first property on Spring Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. In 1868 she purchased her second lot. As the city of Los Angeles grew and developed, these properties became part of Los Angeles' first financial district.
The land boom in Los Angeles enabled Mason to become a generous philanthropist. During recurring floods in early L.A. she was known for opening a tab at a local grocery store for any families with children who needed food in the recovery. She also hosted the first meeting of what would become the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (F.A.M.E.) in her home on Spring Street. Later she donated the property on 8th and Tome Streets, for F.A.M.E.’s first building in 1903. As she was known to say, "If you hold your hand closed, nothing good comes in."
Ms. Mason died at a ripe old age on January 15, 1891 and was buried in Evergreen cemetery in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Born into slavery, Biddy worked hard all of her life to support herself and to give generously to the people of Los Angeles. Biddy died with a fortune estimated to be more than $300,000, the equivalent of $8,700,000 today.
Biddy Mason’s life is a story worthy of the gospels. The same gospel story that transcends social barriers today as it always has. The Apostle Paul describes participation in the gospel story as a way of life in which there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female…”1 In the lives of both Biddy Mason and Mary McLeod Bethune, these were not simply pious words but a lived reality.
(An excerpt from my book, “God in LA LA Land” available on Amazon.com)
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