Mississippi-born slave Bridget “Biddy” Mason filed a suit in a Los Angeles court on January 19, 1856, against her master to secure her freedom and that of her extended family.
Biddy, as she was called, was born a slave in Mississippi in 1818 and was owned by slave masters in Georgia and South Carolina before she was returned to Mississippi.
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Her last owner, Robert Smith, was a Mississippi Mormon convert who followed the call of church leaders to settle in the West. He moved with Mason and other slaves on a religious pilgrimage to establish a new Mormon community in what would become Salt Lake City, Utah which was at the time part of Mexico.
Their 300-wagon caravan arrived at Holladay-Cottonwood area of the Salt Lake Valley after 1,700 miles in 1848. Among the duties of Biddy who was walking behind the caravan throughout the journey was to serve as a midwife, cook, cattle herder among others.
They stayed there until 1851 when the Mormon slave master moved them again in a 150-wagon caravan to San Bernardino, California where slavery was illegal. He moved there to establish another Mormon community.
Biddy was counselled on her way to the free state by freed slaves Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, who urged her to legally contest her slave status. She was also encouraged by her new friends in California Robert and Minnie Owens who were free.
On sensing danger, Robert Smith decided to move his caravan and slaves to Texas in 1855 where slavery was legal. They were stopped in Cajon Pass, California by the Owens family and other friends and cowboys who had told the Los Angeles County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally held.
The Owens were more interested in the freedom of Bridget “Biddy” Mason’s family because their son was romantically involved with Biddy’s 17-year-old daughter.
Their apprehension was followed by the suit filed in 1856 at the Los Angeles District court by Biddy seeking her freedom and that of her extended family comprising 13 women and children.
After three days, Judge Benjamin Hayes handed down his ruling in favor of Briddy and her extended family backed by California’s 1850 constitution which prohibited slavery.
They then moved to Los Angeles where her daughter married the son of Robert and Minnie Owens. Bridget “Biddy” Mason continued to work as a midwife and nurse. She saved her money and bought a land in what is now downtown Los Angeles.
Biddy also set up the first A.M.E. Church which is the oldest African American church in the city. Her children were educated and she supported the entire Los Angeles community with her wealth as a philanthropist. Bridget “Biddy” Mason died in Los Angeles in 1891.
The story was first published by blackpast.org.