Biddy Mason: A Free Woman in Los Angeles
By Candace CooperAugust 18, 2019
Biddy Mason Speaks Up by Arisa White and Laura Atkins
Each chapter covers a period in Biddy’s life, with the first part of each chapter serving as a biographical description. These sections are written with some fictional embellishments and almost read like poetry. Because little is known about Biddy’s family of origin, for example, a “Granny Ellen” character is created to serve as Biddy’s family during her early life. Granny Ellen is portrayed as a midwife and healer who teaches Biddy about the healing value of natural herbs and flowers. Although Granny is a fictional character, Biddy indeed knew these skills and was a nurse, midwife, and healer throughout her life. All of the biographical sections are attractively illustrated by Laura Freeman.
The second part of each chapter includes illustrations and significant historical information about social and political events. For example, in “Chapter Two. Plantation Wounds,” the biographical section describes a difficult day when Granny Ellen and Biddy are picking cotton and Granny is whipped for not picking enough. Biddy prepares a healing salve from plantains to apply to Granny’s welts and broken skin. The second section of that chapter contains photos from that era, a timeline of significant dates, and a factual description of the harsh “Plantation Life and Picking Cotton.” The historical information includes a description of the “Slave Codes” adopted at that time to prevent enslaved people from rebelling or escaping.
Each chapter follows this same structure. The book covers Biddy’s life from slavery to free woman and mother to wealthy landowner. In the fourth chapter, we learn that in 1846 Biddy was sold to Robert and Rebecca Smith. It is believed that Biddy was purchased because of her knowledge and healing abilities. Around this time, Biddy became the mother of two daughters, Ellen and Ann, and her owners, the Smith family, relocated to Mississippi.
In 1848, the Smiths decided to move to Salt Lake City, Utah, as part of the mass migration of Mormon families. Biddy and her family became part of the westward expansion of the United States. As they traveled west by wagon train and on foot, Biddy met with some of the Potawatomi Indians, who allowed the Mormons to rest on their tribal lands during the migration. It is believed that Biddy may have learned new information about local plants and medicines from these Native Americans.
In 1851, 437 members of the Salt Lake Mormon community moved to Southern California to establish a new Mormon colony. This group included Biddy, her children, and 23 other black people. In 1850, California joined the United States as a free state, meaning that slavery was illegal. However, in 1850 the United States also passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which provided that enslaved people who had escaped to free states could be captured and returned to their slaveholders.
When Biddy and her daughters arrived in California, they were still the slaves of Robert Smith. Although she could have challenged Robert Smith in the California courts, she didn’t have the power to do this on her own and the courts did not allow blacks to testify against whites. Further, although California was a free state, the law against slavery was rarely enforced.
Robert Smith became a successful cattle rancher in San Bernardino, California, but in 1855 decided to move to Texas, where slavery was still legal. For Biddy Mason and her daughters, this meant leaving a free state and returning to slave status.
After her arrival in California, Biddy became friends with other black families in the Southern California area and told them of Smith’s plan to relocate to Texas. This sparked a legal action that resulted in Biddy’s freedom.
On their way to Texas, Smith and his family temporarily relocated to the Santa Monica hills. At that time, two local sheriffs asked a local judge to sign a writ of habeas corpus to prevent Biddy from being taken to Texas. On January 1, 1856, Judge Benjamin Hayes called on Robert Smith to respond to the charges. Smith asserted that Biddy and her children were not slaves, that they were with him voluntarily, and were freely choosing to go to Texas. On January 15, the date set for the trial on the writ, Judge Hayes questioned Biddy in his chambers, in violation of rules that a black person could not speak directly in court against a white person. Although the content of this interview is not known, later that month, Judge Hayes granted the petition for a writ. Biddy and her children gained their freedom and were given “freedom papers” to verify their status.
At the same time that these events were occurring in Biddy’s life, the book informs us about other significant events. From 1850 to 1860, for example, Harriet Tubman was active with the Underground Railroad. In 1857, the Dred Scott case was decided, in which the US Supreme Court upheld slaveholders’ rights to black men and women as property. The United States Civil War was fought from April 12, 1861, to April 9, 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 with the promise of “equal protection of the laws” to all persons.
The final chapter of the book chronicles Biddy Mason’s remarkable success once she became a free woman. Although there were only 87 black people listed in the 1860 Los Angeles Census, Biddy’s history as part of the early history of the City of Los Angeles is startling. Biddy was 37 years old when she became legally free. She connected with other local black families and was able to work for her own benefit and for the benefit of her family and community. She continued her work as a midwife and delivered hundreds of babies. She was later hired as a doctor’s assistant and was paid a decent salary. She carefully saved the money she earned and started to purchase property in Los Angeles, including a large parcel on Spring Street between Third and Fourth Street. By 1890, this area became the city's financial center. From 2001 to 2009, I worked directly across the street from the Biddy Mason parcel in the Ronald Reagan State Office Building, which houses the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, and other state agencies.
During this period of her life, Biddy became a great philanthropist and prominent member of the Los Angeles community. She was one of the founders of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) in Los Angeles. She and her children also worked to help young women and people who were sick or poor and needed support. Ultimately, Biddy became one of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles and had a fortune worth more than $7.5 million [current value] at the time of her death in 1891.
Packed in the 92 pages of this wonderful book is an incredible amount of information, both about Biddy Mason and about the times in which she lived. Although I was born in Los Angeles, and the story of Biddy Mason was well known in my family during my childhood, I learned a great deal reading Atkins and White's book. My family has been in the Los Angeles area since approximately 1915, when my grandfather came from Georgia to become the Pastor at FAME in Pasadena, California. My father grew up as a member of FAME in Los Angeles, and I have many family connections to FAME, which is still a prominent institution in the city.
The writers and illustrator of this book have done an excellent job relating what one remarkable woman was able to accomplish against overwhelming odds.
Candace Cooper is a retired California appellate justice.
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