In Key Court Case, Slave Tested State’s Commitment to Freedom
Amid the din of traffic and the buzz of busy sidewalks, brown-baggers take refuge in a vest-pocket park behind the Bradbury Building. A timeline at the park’s entrance memorializes a former slave who had compassion for the poor, turned poverty into profit and helped to rescue 13 others from slavery.
In 1849, as slavery was wrenching the nation and California was preparing to become a state, delegates to a statehood convention took a bold stand and wrote in the state Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude unless for the punishment of crimes shall ever be tolerated in this state.”
Under the law, any slave brought into the state was automatically free. However, if the former slave later voluntarily returned to a slave state, he or she would once again become a slave. The law added that anyone persuading a black person by false promises or misrepresentation to leave the security and freedom of California would be guilty of kidnapping. This was how Biddy Mason became a free woman and ultimately a famous one.
She was born a slave in Georgia in 1818 and named Bridget. She was just an infant when she was sold to a slave owner in Mississippi, where her new owners began to call her Biddy. When she turned 18, she was presented as a wedding gift to Robert Marion Smith and his bride, Rebecca.
Biddy became an expert in livestock, herbal medicine, nursing and midwifery, skills that later enabled her to earn a living as a free woman. She bore three daughters in 10 years; the younger two were fathered by her owner, Smith.
Soon after Biddy’s youngest was born, the Smith family, which had converted to the Mormon religion, joined a wagon train and headed for Utah. The wagon train’s population was 56 white men, women and children and 34 slaves.
While others rode in wagons or on horseback, Biddy, a woman of masculine strength, carried her nursing baby on her back, as she and her other daughters, ages 10 and 4, trekked behind the wagon dust for seven months, herding 300 livestock as well as keeping the six Smith children from straying. Biddy played midwife to both women and animals giving birth.
Three years after their arrival in Salt Lake City, the Smiths and their slaves were among 437 pioneers who trekked 800 miles across deep desert sand, making the Mormon faith’s first journey to San Bernardino, where they set up a trading post and missionary church in 1851.
Biddy befriended a number of free blacks who settled in the area, including Charles and Elizabeth Rowan, who would be instrumental in securing her freedom. Biddy and the others were unsure of the California law that made them free. Smith, whom they trusted, told them a different story.
When Smith’s wife died, he grew dissatisfied with the Mormon Church and its colony. Fearing that he would lose his slaves to a growing freedom movement, he decided to go to Texas, where slave-owning was still legal. He lied to Biddy and the others that they would be just as free in Texas as they were in California. Although Biddy felt uneasy about the move, she and the others followed him first to Los Angeles, for supplies. Smith, not wanting to bring attention to his slave caravan, camped in Santa Monica Canyon.
In the meantime, the freed slave Elizabeth Rowan, who distrusted Smith, sent word to Los Angeles County Sheriff Frank Dewitt that Biddy and the other slaves needed help. Dewitt, aided by wealthy black businessman Robert Owens, rode to their camp and served Smith a writ of habeas corpus. He was ordered to appear in court for “persuading and enticing and seducing persons of color to go out of the state of California.”
For their safety, the sheriff and Owens escorted the slaves to the jail in Los Angeles. There, they were kept under the watchful eye of Deputy Frank Carpenter, who would later testify about the slaves’ fear of their master.
News of what was happening spread throughout the town of about 2,000, only a dozen or so of whom were black. For three days, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Hayes’ courtroom was the focus of the whole settlement.
On Jan. 19, 1856, Biddy, leader of the group of 14 slaves, walked into the courtroom with her court-appointed attorney. Smith, represented by attorney Alonzo Thomas, argued that the black women and children were free, “members of his family” who wanted to go to Texas.
Barred from speaking in court because she was black, Biddy was heard nonetheless after Hayes invited her and two other witnesses into his chambers.
“I have always done what I have been told to do,” she said. “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,” Biddy told Hayes.
That evening, after court adjourned, Smith’s overseer, Hartwell Cottrell, tried to induce two of the black children into going to Texas with him. The judge learned of it and signed a warrant for Cottrell’s arrest on suspicion of attempted kidnapping. But Cottrell was already one step ahead of the law, heading out of town.
The next day, Biddy’s attorney astonished the courtroom by slipping a note to the judge saying he was quitting. The angry Hayes said: “No attorney can desert his clients at his own pleasure without good reason.” He put the lawyer on the witness stand and heard him testify that he had been threatened and paid $100 by “unnamed persons” to drop the case.
Smith had had enough. Afraid that bribery and kidnapping charges would be added to the others, he left town that night.
The next day, Smith was a no-show and Hayes declared him guilty of lying and ordered him to pay court costs. More significantly, Hayes declared, “All of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom and are free forever.”
The court’s decision was hailed throughout Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Star, in its Feb. 2, 1856, issue, printed the full text of Hayes’ opinion under the heading “Suit for Freedom.”
(Biddy--who chose the surname Mason for reasons that are unclear--and the others had won a timely escape from bondage. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, that a slave was not a person, but property, and that a slave’s residence in free territory did not make that slave free.)
Mason and her daughters were taken in by Owens, the wealthy black man, and his family. Soon after, Mason’s second daughter, Ann, died, and her eldest daughter, Ellen, married the Owenses’ only son, Charles.
Among those who had followed the trial closely was Dr. John Strother Griffin, a transplanted Southerner who offered Mason work as a midwife and nurse at $2.50 per day, a good wage at a time when black women commanded much lower pay.
By 1866, she had delivered hundreds of babies and nursed many Angelenos through a smallpox epidemic. She had saved almost every penny she earned, and bought a $250 chunk of property at 331 Spring St., where she built a house.
It was in her home that the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first black congregation, was organized in 1872. Thirty years later, the congregation’s building at 8th Street and Towne Avenue became the city’s first black church. Mason’s home was a longtime refuge for stranded and needy settlers.
While Mason continued to invest in property, she paid the annual property taxes for local churches, and paid a minister’s salary. She packed food baskets and took them to the jail, where she brought cheer and prayerful hope to the prisoners.
In 1884, a rainstorm turned the Los Angeles River into a raging torrent. Homes were swept away, and many people were left with nothing. Mason, who had recently sold a lot for $2,800, left a standing order at a Spring Street grocery store to give free food to any flood victims--black or white--who needed it.
Although she was for a time a living legend, Mason was soon forgotten after she died at age 73, in 1891. It wasn’t until 1988, almost a century later, that city officials and members of the AME church she helped to establish placed a headstone on her unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Her descendants proudly maintain her legacy, still cherishing a copy of the 1856 court decision, written in longhand and signed by Hayes. They remember the lesson she passed down:
“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.”