Born enslaved in Georgia, Bridget “Biddy” Mason walked more than 2,000 miles through rugged terrain to California where she eventually won her freedom in a landmark court case and became a celebrated philanthropist.
Mason was forced to travel West with Robert and Rebecca Smith, slaveholders who had joined the Mormon migration to Utah. The Smiths eventually took Mason and her three children to San Bernardino in California. While California was supposedly a “free state,” Smith continued to hold them captive. Mason and her children befriended free blacks who alerted the local sheriff when the Smiths made plans to take Biddy and her daughters to Texas with them. The sheriff took Mason and her family into protective custody under a writ of habeas corpus.
Judge Benjamin Hayes circumvented racist testimony laws that prevented blacks from testifying against whites by interviewing Mason in his chambers. There, she said that she did not want to go back to the South with the Smiths. As a result, in 1856, Hayes ruled that Mason and her children were “free forever.” Mason became a doctor’s assistant and ran a midwifing business. She accumulated a fortune worth about $7.5 million in today’s dollars, making her one of the richest women in Los Angeles. She established a homestead in what became downtown Los Angeles. Mason used her wealth to establish a daycare center for working parents and created an account at a store where families who lost their homes in flooding could get supplies. She also co-founded and financed the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church, which is still going strong. Known as Grandma Mason, she died in 1891 and is honored through the Biddy Mason monument in downtown Los Angeles.