"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."
Bridget "Biddy" Mason, 1818-1891
This is one of my favorite stories of Black excellence.
Settle in, it keeps getting better and better.
Bridget "Biddy" Mason was born into slavery on August 15, 1818 in the southern United States. At an early age, she was taken from her parents and moved to the plantation of another slave owner.
During her teenage years, she learned domestic and agricultural skills. Additionally, she developed skills in herbal medicine and midwifery taught to her by other female slaves. These skills were passed down from African, Caribbean, and Native American traditions. Her knowledge benefited both the enslaved people and the plantation owners.
Biddy was either given to or sold to Robert Mayes Smith and Rebecca Dorn Smith in
the 1840s and moved to the Smith's Mississippi plantation.
Mormon missionaries came to Mississippi and converted The Smith household who joined a group of other church members to meet the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1847. They later joined the main body of Mormons crossing the plains and eventually settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory.
in 1851, the leader of the Mormon Church directed the Smiths to San Bernardino California to found a new Mormon colony. At that time, California was a free state, meaning that any enslaved people residing or born in California were granted their freedom. The Smiths kept this information from Biddy and the other enslaved people and in 1856, attempted to move the entire plantation to Texas so the slaves could be sold. He lied to Biddy saying she would be free there.
She did not believe him.
Biddy relayed her fears of being separated from her children and remaining a slave to two free black men: Charles Owens and Manuel Pepper who were determined to help Biddy stay in California. The men, including sheriffs and others, invaded Smith's hideout in the Santa Monica Mountains and served him a court order while Biddy petitioned a Los Angeles court for her freedom.
Smith claimed that Biddy was family and she wanted to go to Texas. He then bribed her lawyer to not show up.
Although Biddy was not allowed to testify in court, since California law prohibited Black people from testifying against white people, Smith failed to appear in court on January 21, 1856 and Biddy won freedom for her and her family. In 1860, she received a certified copy of the document that guaranteed her freedom.
After becoming free, Mason worked in Los Angeles as a nurse and midwife, delivering hundreds of babies during her career. Using her knowledge of herbal remedies, she risked her life to care for those affected by the smallpox epidemic in Los Angeles.
Saving carefully, she was one of the first African American women to own land in Los Angeles. As a businesswoman, she amassed a relatively large fortune of nearly $300,000, which she shared generously with charities.
Mason also fed and sheltered the poor, and visited prisoners. She was instrumental in founding a traveler's aid center, and a school and day care center for black children, open to any child who had nowhere else to go.
Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her "Auntie Mason" or "Grandma Mason."
In 1872, Mason was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the city's first black church. The organizing meetings were held in her home and she donated the land on which the church was built.
She also helped to establish the first elementary school for black children in Los Angeles.
Biddy Mason became an ancestor January 15, 1891.
What a life lived and what a legacy left behind.
Let her legacy live on through our actions as we work together to resist oppression, to heal ourselves and one another, to share our gifts in service of our collective liberation, to transmute rather than transmit our trauma, and build our resilience and prosperity on a foundation of love, generosity and openness.
Give thanks for the truth tellers.
Give thanks for the peacemakers.
Give thanks for the revolutionaries.
Power to the people.