From Slave to Millionaire Philanthropist: The Biddy Mason Story


As a slave, Biddy Mason trekked 1,600 miles on foot across the U.S. while herding livestock and nursing a baby. Junkyardsparkle/Wikimedia/HowStuffWorks

On Aug. 15, 1818, a baby girl named Bridget was born into slavery in Georgia. She was sold as an infant to new masters who called her Biddy. When Biddy turned 18, she was presented as a wedding gift to Robert Marion Smith and his wife Rebecca in Mississippi. This was the life of an enslaved black woman in the Deep South. She was property to be bought, sold, punished and even violated if the master so pleased.

But Biddy's story is different. It's the story of a strong and humble woman who endured terrific hardships before bravely fighting for her family's freedom and winning. Biddy's story takes us from the muggy cotton fields of Mississippi to the frontier boomtown of Los Angeles, where Biddy becomes one of the city's most sought-after midwives and parlays her earnings into a small real-estate empire.

But before we arrive at that happy ending, there are decades of degradation to endure and thousands of miles of country to cross. In Mississippi, Biddy lived the typical life of a slave woman. She was expected to labor in the cotton fields, but also assist in the home, primarily as a midwife during the births of Rebecca Smith's six children. Biddy likely learned the duties of a midwife — which included the use of medicinal herbs and basic nursing skills — from fellow slaves steeped in traditional knowledge.

Robert Smith was an early convert to the fledgling Mormon faith and in 1847 decided to relocate his family, including his slaves, to the Utah Territory. By this time, Biddy had three daughters of her own. While the Smith family traveled in wagons and on horseback, Biddy walked behind, tending the livestock. For seven months, she trekked the 1,600 miles (2,754 kilometers) from Mississippi to Utah with her 10-year-old daughter, 4-year-old daughter and an infant on her breast.

The Smiths stayed only a few short years in Salt Lake City before setting out for San Bernardino, California, in 1851 where the Mormon church was building a missionary outpost. California was the newest state in the Union, admitted in 1850 as a free state. The California Constitution was rare in its powerful denunciation of slavery, promising, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude unless for the punishment of crimes shall ever be tolerated in this state." During her time there, Biddy befriended other free blacks who told her about this law, although she seems to have been unsure as to whether it applied to her as she continued to serve the Smith family.

Enter the Cavalry

Nervous that the authorities would try to take away his 14 slaves, Smith moved his family and slaves to an encampment in the Santa Monica Mountains and planned an escape to slavery-friendly Texas.

But a cavalry led by Robert Owens, a black vaquero who owned several stables in Los Angeles, tracked Smith down and the local sheriff presented a writ of habeas corpus demanding that Biddy and her fellow slaves be released. Smith fought the decree and the case ended up in front of Judge Benjamin Hayes of the First District Court in Los Angeles.

Even with California's strong anti-slavery stance, the law was very much in favor of whites over blacks and other people of color. In fact, it was illegal for a person of color to testify against a white person in court. And Smith had bribed Biddy's lawyer not to appear in court. Despite these unfavorable conditions, Judge Hayes took a particular interest in Biddy's case and met in private with Biddy and other Smith slaves to hear their side of the story.

Rather than accepting Smith's claims that the slave women and children were "members of his family" who left Mississippi on their own consent, Judge Hayes chose to believe Biddy, who confessed that she was terribly afraid to be taken to Texas. In a landmark decision heralded in California newspapers, Judge Hayes wrote that "all of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom and are free forever."

Historian Dolores Hayden writes that Biddy's decision to stand up to Smith was an act of profound bravery.

To understand Biddy's courage in going to court against her master, it is first necessary to think of her lifetime in Mississippi, her complete immersion in the culture of the southern plantation, where physical torments such as whipping and being hosed down in brine would have been common punishment for both male and female slaves' minor infractions ... Any slave's loved ones could be put on the block — husband, wife, child — and sold, never to be seen again. In this context, all slaves' courage in risking a public test of white men's justice is striking.

Wealth and Service

One of the first things Biddy did as a free woman was choose a last name for herself. For the rest of her life, she was known as Biddy Mason. She and her daughters lived alongside the Owens family, who continued to be a terrific support and close friends. With the press coverage from the court case, Mason caught the attention of Dr. John Strother Griffin, a prominent white physician who offered her work as a midwife. Mason also acted as a nurse to inmates in the county jail.

A shot of Biddy Mason Park in Los Angeles on Spring Street.

With her decades of experience, she soon became one of the most in-demand midwives in Los Angeles, catering to the needs of both wealthy residents and impoverished new arrivals. After saving for 10 years, she followed the examples of Robert Owens and Dr. Griffin, both real estate investors, and bought a piece of land on the outskirts of town among the vineyards and orange groves.

Her homestead on Spring Street would become a refuge, not only for her growing family, but for all Los Angelenos in need of a helping hand. As she slowly amassed more wealth with investment properties, Mason freely gave to community members in need. In 1872, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in her living room and she put up the funds to pay the minister and pay the church's property taxes. (The church now has 19,000 members.) In 1884, after flash flooding destroyed homes across Los Angeles, Mason opened a tab at the Spring Street grocery store and instructed the owners to provide free food to anyone who needed it, black or white.

As she grew older, she became lovingly known as "Auntie Biddy" or "Grandma Mason" throughout Los Angeles. By the time of her death in 1891 at age 73, she had amassed a fortune of $300,000 (more than $8 million in 2019 dollars), which, as we saw earlier, she generously used to help others.

"If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in," Biddy Mason famously said. "The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance even as it receives."