Bridget “Biddy” Mason
August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891
Because February is Black History month, I wanted to highlight Bridget “Biddy” Mason. I first learned of her in reading Zion’s Hope: Pioneer Midwives and Doctors of Utah by Honey M. Newton, CNM. To be honest, the more I read about her, the more I wanted to know. She is one of the people I hope to meet after this life. I want to hear her story in her own words. She is one of my new heroes.
Biddy was born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia. She was separated from her parents while still very young. She learned midwifery and healing skills from other African slaves. She was eventually sold with her two year old daughter to Robert Marion Smith and Rebecca Crosby who were converted by Mormon missionaries. (It was not the practice of the church to require baptism of master’s slaves. In addition, after the martyr of Joseph Smith, the baptism of blacks was no longer practiced.) Biddy had two more daughters who were likely fathered by her owner. Upon baptism into the LDS church her owner was instructed to free his slaves. Robert Smith ignored this counsel. He travelled to the Rocky Mountains with his slaves walking behind his wagon train in the dust. The slaves of his party were also required to do the bulk of manual labor for their white owners on this trek. Biddy delivered both white and slave babies on this trip.
They lived in Salt Lake for only a year when they were directed to go to California to help build a Mormon community. Once again, Robert was strongly warned to release his slaves, this time by Brigham Young. Interestingly enough, this move to California, a free state, provided the catalyst for Biddy to claim her freedom. Biddy had been carefully preparing herself for this inevitability. Her owner, upon disagreeing with local church leaders and government, decided to flee to Texas where slavery was still practiced. He would have succeeded had it not been for one of his slaves giving birth thus slowing their party down. Robert claimed that his slaves wanted to remain as such. The local judge met with Biddy privately and set her and the rest of Robert Smith’s slave free.
It should be noted that for many slaves the idea of freedom may have been enticing but at the same time, feared. It was not uncommon for slaves to be threatened by their masters with death if they were to leave. Others were afraid to go into a world without any formal education or protection from persecution or harm. And still for others it was the fear of the unknown staring back at them that stilled their feet. Biddy’s skills as a midwife likely gave her confidence to leave her owner and seek her own destiny. It is likely she also knew the church’s position on slavery. In addition to that, she had a good relationship with local LDS church leaders. So much so, that when she was emancipated she was given the chance to choose her own last name. She chose the surname Mason because of her many positive dealings with Amasa Mason Lyman, who was also the mayor of San Bernadino.
Because of Biddy’s good reputation she was hired by a local doctor as a midwife. She carefully saved her money eventually becoming the first African American woman to buy land in Los Angeles. Not only that, she became the wealthiest African American woman in they city. She was known widely for her generosity and service to others. She donated her money to many causes, even delivering babies for free to women who could not afford her services. Even though she was illiterate she used her money from real estate investments to build an elementary school for African American children, among many other charitable ventures. She served people of all colors, socio-economic status and faith. Despite all this, she was buried in an unmarked grave. One hundred years later the mayor of Los Angeles named November 16 as “Biddy Mason Day.” A memorial was built in her honor on the same land she purchased as a midwife all those years ago. Her great granddaughter, Gladys Owens Smith, quoted Biddy as saying, “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.”
source: Zion’s Hope: Pioneer Midwives and Women Doctors of Utah by Honey M. Newton, CNM, p. 5-8