Biddy Mason was born into slavery, enduring the hardships of labor and motherhood under terrible conditions. However, Mason would win her freedom in court on her way to becoming one of the first Black women to own land in the city of Los Angeles.
Mason was born August 15, 1818 in Mississippi to owners Robert and Rebecca Smith. Mason, who couldn’t read, bore three daughters as a slave, with rumors that Smith fathered one of the girls. Mason, who was named “Bridget,” learned midwife and nursing skills that would later prove valuable.
Smith eventually converted to the Mormon religion but despite the urging of missionaries to free his slaves, he refused to do so. Instead, he ordered his slaves to travel by foot on a cross-country hike from Mississippi to Utah. Mason and the other slaves had to sleep under the traveling wagons at night, enduring the elements and other dangers.
Upon arriving in San Bernardino, Calif., where Brigham Young was building a Mormon university, Smith possibly didn’t know that slavery was outlawed in the state. But Mason, who encountered free slaves on the journey to California, learned that she could win her freedom. Despite some trickery by Smith to keep his slaves in bondage, a Los Angeles court ruled in favor of Mason and she was free.
Employment came easily for Mason because of the skills she’d learned, and she was extremely prudent in saving her money. Over time, Mason amassed over $300,000, a fortune for the time. She purchased land and commercial property, renting out space to those in need.