March 21, 2012


David Ellis

CHANCES are you know nothing of a remarkable 19th century African-American woman named Biddy Mason.

But crammed away in the concrete canyons of Downtown Los Angles is a tiny park that pays homage to Biddy… a slave forced to walk over 3000kms in the wagon-train tracks of her master from Mississippi to Utah Territory, and who extraordinarily went on to become the wealthiest black woman in her time in LA.

A slave who won her freedom in bizarre circumstances from a sympathetic white judge, and after becoming the first black woman to own land in Los Angeles, gave away everything she earned to help black poor and needy.

Biddy Mason was born to a slave in Mississippi in 1818, named Bridget with no surname, and as a young child was given as a wedding present to wealthy plantation owner Robert Smith and his bride.

She learned midwifery and the use of herbal medicines from fellow slaves of Smith, and after Smith converted to the Mormon faith in the 1840s she set off in a wagon-train with his family and fourteen slaves from Mississippi to Great Lake City, Utah.

Biddy had to walk the whole 3,200kms, driving Smith's herd of cattle by day, cooking the family's meals when they pitched camp for the night, washing their clothes and tending the sick amongst family and slaves.

And still young she bore three daughters, with the father widely believed to be her master, Robert Smith – whom the Mormon Church's leader, Brigham Young constantly counselled, unsuccessfully, to free Biddy and his other slaves.

In 1851 Smith decided to move again, to Southern California where the Church was establishing a branch in San Bernardino… but it proved his undoing as far as Biddy and her fellow slaves were concerned: just a year earlier, California had abolished slavery and any slave brought into the State had to be set free.

Smith refused to comply, declaring Biddy, her daughters and others "his property," and instead decided to move yet again, to Texas where slavery was still legal.

However before he could do so Biddy, through an educated friend, filed a court application seeking her freedom – but extraordinarily was blocked from pleading her case before Judge Benjamin Hayes, because then-laws prevented blacks from testifying in court.

To everyone's surprise, Judge Hayes noted that the law said nothing of them speaking to him in his chambers, and after inviting Biddy there and hearing her plea, he returned to the courtroom and declared she and her fellow Smith slaves "free forever and without fear."

Biddy then adopted a surname for the first time – Mason after a Mormon anti-slavery crusader. A doctor friend of Judge Hayes in Los Angeles impressed with Biddy's nursing and midwifery skills gave her work, and after living frugally and saving virtually everything she earned, bought a house on Spring Street, Los Angeles in 1866 – the first black woman landowner in LA.

She bought other land, sold one block just a few years after buying it for six times what she had paid, invested this money in a warehouse, and with the rental income from this helped build the First African Methodist Episcopal Church – LA's first black church.

She had already thrown open the doors of her home, dubbed "The House of the Open Hand" to homeless black women, welcoming them with her favourite quote: "If you hold your hand closed, no good can come in." She provided food to hungry families, visited black prisoners in jails, and built an orphanage and elementary school for black children.

When she died in 1891 aged 73, "Grandma Mason" as she was known left an amazing US$300,000 in cash and property (equivalent to US$7.3 million today) with the instructions that it was to go towards the continuation of her work for the poor and the needy.

If you are visiting LA, take the trip Downtown to 333 Spring Street where Biddy Mason Park has been established on what was the site of her original home, later became a parking lot, and was finally given over for a small and leafy park dedicated to Biddy and her work.

Plaques and murals on the walls tell the story of her life, and thousands gather there every November 16 to celebrate Biddy Mason Day.

Photo captions:

[] BIDDY Mason – America's most extraordinary philanthropist?

[] PARK dedicated to Biddy Mason on the site of her House of the Open Hand.

[] HISTORIC photo of Biddy Mason sitting on the verandah of her home with young women she provided shelter to.

(Photos: Los Angeles Visitor & Convention Bureau.)



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