On March 27, 1988, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley unveiled a tombstone at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights for a former slave who had been buried at the site 97 years earlier without a marker. Biddy Mason was a woman who had been bought and sold as a child, and given away as a wedding present at 18. But she dared to sue and win freedom for her and her children in court. Then she used her freedom to achieve her potential as she worked hard, invested wisely, and gave generously.
Born on August 15, 1818, in Mississippi, slave owners separated Bridget -- no last name -- from her parents at a young age, then sold and re-sold her several times. Along the way she acquired the nickname Biddy and the surname Mason. She was just a thing, an object owned and traded like livestock. As such, she was a wedding present to Robert Marion Smith and Rebbecca Crosby Smith when they wed in 1836. The Smiths converted to Mormonism in 1847 and made a 2,000 mile journey to Utah, which took seven months. Biddy and the other slaves walked the whole way. She tended the cattle and became a midwife -- skills that would serve her well once freed.
She had children as well. In Utah, she tended the children -- black and white -- and prepared meals. They called such slave mammies. While the Smiths were Mormon, their slaves could not be. Later, Mormons would abandon polygamy and would integrate their membership.
In 1851, the Smiths moved to San Bernardino, California, which was an early Mormon colony. This move saved her life, despite the long walk through deserts and over mountains.
California was a free state. After five years in California, two young black freemen -- Charles Owens and Manuel Pepper -- talked her into seeking freedom for her and her three daughters, Ellen, Ann, and Harriet. They had an ulterior motive, of course. They wanted to marry two of her daughters. But before she could petition the court for freedom, her owners caught wind of the plan and decided to move to Texas, a slave state, and sell their slaves. pocket the money, and return to San Bernardino.
But Owens and Pepper caught wind of this plan and informed James R. Barton, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, that the Smiths were holding slaves illegally and planning to sell them in Texas. Sheriff Barton gathered a posse of his men, cowboys and vaqueros from the Owens ranch, on of course, Owens and Pepper and headed the Smiths off at the pass -- literally -- at Cajon Pass in the Mojave Desert. Interstate 15 now runs through it, but in the 1850s it was an important milestone o the Salt Lake Road to Utah.
Once back in Los Angeles, the Owens family helped Biddy gained freedom for her and her daughters. Weddings promptly were held later. Just what she gave her daughters for the weddings is lost to history, but it certainly was not another human being.
Sadly, Sheriff Barton and three deputies died in a shootout a few days later. The state later named the site Barton Mound and erected a sign that reads: "Juan Flores, who had escaped from San Quentin, was being sought by James Barton with a posse of five men. Near this mound, Flores surprised Barton and three of his men; all four were killed. When Los Angeles learned of the slaughter, posses were formed, and Flores and his men were captured."
Having gained her freedom at 38, Biddy Mason went to work, first as a nurse and later, after she acquired money to buy livestock, she raised cattle. Under capitalism, she finally received the fruits of her labors. She invested in land and as Los Angeles grew, so did Mason's wealth.
And like most American capitalists, once she got rich she became a philanthropist. In 1872 -- just 15 years after winning her freedom -- Mason and her son-in-law, Charles Owens, organized the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, California. This was the first black church in the city and it still exists today.
She donated to other churches including white ones, visited hospitals, gave food and shelter to strangers, and lived a good Christian life. She took in orphans at her home at 331 Spring Street. They called her Grandma Mason.
By the time of her death on January 5, 1891, at 72, Mason's real estate holdings alone were valued at $250,000 in 1891 dollars. Most of her holdings were in the city's financial district.
She is both a tribute to the greatness of this country, but also the terrible waste of talent we had under that feudalistic system called slavery.
November 16 is now Biddy Mason Day each year in Los Angeles.
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