Biddy Mason was born in Georgia. A slave, she was purchased by aspiring cotton planter Robert Smith, and brought to the cotton frontier of Mississippi.
Smith’s efforts at growing cotton were unsuccessful; he didn’t even manage to acquire his own land. So when the Latter-day Saints decided to build their new Zion at Salt Lake City, Smith and his wife, who had recently converted to Mormonism, decided to emigrate. By the end of 1848, Biddy Mason found herself living in Utah.
The next year she was uprooted again, this time to California. In the wake of the Gold Rush, Mormon leaders had seen fit to establish an outpost in the hills around San Bernardino, where they hoped to successfully raise cattle. The perpetually-struggling Robert Smith volunteered to join the San Bernardino colony.
By the time Biddy Mason arrived in California, it had joined the Union as a free state. Although the state constitution was not clear on the legalities, free blacks and white abolitionists in California were actively taking steps to free the slaves brought to the new state. Among such local activists were a family by the name of Owens.
Robert Owens had once been a slave in Texas. He had managed to purchase his own freedom and then that of his wife; together they had worked to purchase the freedom of their three children. Then Owens had moved his family to the sleepy little town of Los Angeles, California, where he established successful livery stable and cattle business. After the Mormons moved to the area, the Owens family became acquainted with Biddy Mason, who was still being held in slavery by Robert Smith.
Sometime in the mid-1850s, Robert Smith had a disagreement with the Mormon leadership, who then took him to court and successfully sued him for the possession of his land and cattle. Disgruntled, Smith decided to leave California for a new start in the slave state of Texas. He intended to take with him his few remaining possessions, including his slave, Biddy Mason.
The Owens family, with the help of sympathetic neighbors and the county sheriff, acted quickly. The Smith family and their slaves were already camped outside Los Angeles, preparing for the trip to Texas, when the authorities showed up and took the slaves and their children into protective custody.
The judge at the trial happened to be a southerner and former slave owner, Benjamin Hayes. Nevertheless, Hayes ruled that, because California was a free state, Smith did not have the right to make Biddy and the other slaves leave. They were, by California law, “forever free.”
After gaining her freedom in 1856, Biddy Mason stayed in Los Angeles. She and her daughters moved in with the Owens family; one of her daughters married an Owens son, and Mason soon became a grandmother. She worked as a domestic and became known as a dependable midwife. Then in 1859 a successful local physician offered her a job as his assistant, for the excellent wage of $2.50 per hour.
Mason saved her money, invested in real estate, then eventually built a home which became a place of meeting for the city’s several dozen black citizens.
As the value of her properties grew, she became a wealthy woman and a notable humanitarian. She founded a day-care center, visited prisoners in jail, and aided the poor and homeless. In 1872 she helped local black Methodists establish the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Perhaps most importantly, she became a leader in the black community and served as a role model and an inspiration for others – a slave woman who had found freedom and prosperity in the American West.