Biddy Mason was born into slavery in Georgia. A Mormon family named Smith took her along when they moved to Salt Lake City, then San Bernardino, then Los Angeles. Mason was technically free when she crossed into California in 1851, but was probably not informed of her rights, and kept working for the Smiths. Five years later, the Smiths intended to move to Texas, where Mason would again be a slave. California law only allowed such a move for adults who volunteered to return to slavery. Mason’s free friends came to her rescue.
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To keep them safe, Mason and the other Smith “slaves” were taken to the city jail in Los Angeles. In January, 1856, all eyes were on the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Benjamin Hays as the trial began. Smith claimed that Mason and the 14 other people he had kept in the canyon were “members of his family” who voluntarily offered to go with him to Texas. Although Mason was not allowed to testify against a white person in court, Judge Hays invited her into his chambers, where she gave an entirely different account of what had happened.
“I have always done what I have been told to do,” Mason told the judge. “I always feared this trip to Texas since I first heard of it. Mr. Smith told me I would be just as free in Texas as here.” When the judge explained that, due to a state law, her minor children could not be taken to a state where they could become enslaved, Mason replied, “I do not want to be separated from my children, and do not in such case wish to go.”
On January 19, Judge Hays ruled in favor of Mason and confirmed she was free. “All of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom and are free forever,” he wrote. He hoped they would “become settled and go to work for themselves—in peace and without fear.”
Mason went to work for a doctor as a nurse and midwife, and eventually saved enough money to buy a piece of land. And then another. This was at a time when Los Angeles had around 2,000 people, so she got in on the ground floor of a business that boomed, and Mason eventually became one of the richest women in California, and certainly the richest black woman. But Aunt Biddy was about more than real estate.
Mason’s small wood frame house at 311 Spring Street was not just a family home, it became a “refuge for stranded and needy settlers.” She also apparently ran a daycare on the property for working women and allowed civic meetings to be held there. In 1872, a group of black Angelenos founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church at her house; the church met at the Mason home until they were able to move to their own building.