Tag Archives: Slavery

Bridget “Biddy” Mason: Slave, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist

Noting the recent spate of blog posts celebrating the lives of African American women, a dear friend in Los Angeles sent me a note asking if I knew anything of the life of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Best known to Angelinos who enjoy the urban park that celebrates her legacy Biddy Mason was an unschooled slave woman who became a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist – a legend in her adopted Los Angeles.

The brief story that my friend shared inspired a quest to learn about this truly unique woman. A quick search unearthed resources in abundance.

Bridget (she had no surname) was born a slave in 1818, probably in Georgia. She was given as a wedding gift to Robert Smith and his bride Rebecca Crosby who owned a plantation in Logtown, Mississippi.

During this era missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) were proselytizing in the area. In the mid 1840’s Smith converted to Mormonism and decided to join the Mormon community being established by Brigham Young in the Utah Territory. This meant that, in spite of advice to free his slaves prior to the mission, Smith relocated his entire household, including slaves. In the case of Biddy and the other slaves, it meant a 1700 mile walk from Mississippi to Utah, a grueling trek during which Biddy prepared meals, herded the cattle, and served as midwife, a skill she had learned from other slaves. She also cared for her own three daughters who may well have been fathered by Smith.

In 1851 Smith moved his household again, this time in a 150-wagon caravan to San Bernardino, California, where a new Mormon community was under development.  History generously suggests that Smith was unaware that California was a free state in which slavery was forbidden. In any event, Smith kept his retinue intact with no apparent challenge.

Freed slaves knew their rights, however. Along the way Biddy met Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, free blacks, who urged her to legally contest her slave status once the caravan reached the free state of California. Biddy received additional encouragement from free black friends, Robert and Minnie Owens whose son Charles Owens was romantically involved with Biddy’s daughter Ellen.

Meanwhile, slaveholder Smith concluded that he and his household of slaves were not safe in free California. In January 1856 Smith made a plan to relocate to Texas, a slave state. Robert Owens, a respected Los Angeles business owner, informed the LA County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally held and transported. The Sheriff quickly gathered a posse that apprehended Smith’s Texas-bound wagon train in Cajon Pass, California. Smith was prevented from leaving the state.

With the help of these new friends, Biddy petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of thirteen women and children. LA District Judge Benjamin Ignatius Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor of of the illegally held slaves, citing California’s 1850 Constitution that prohibited slavery. At the last minute, Judge Hayes granted freedom to Biddy, her three daughters and ten other women and children who had been enslaved by Smith.

It was on the occasion of her emancipation that Bridget assumed the surname Mason, the middle name of Amasa Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Mayor of San Bernardino; Biddy had known and worked with members of Lyman’s household. Biddy Mason and three daughters moved to LA where they accepted the invitation to live with the Owens family. In time Biddy’s daughter Ellen married Charles Owens while Biddy established herself as a highly regarded nurse and midwife and served as a domestic to Dr. John S. Griffin, a prominent LA physician.

A frugal money manager, Biddy saved enough to purchase property at 331 South Spring Street where she built a clapboard house in which she lived until her death in 1891.   She was one of the first black women to own land in LA. In 1884 she sold a portion of the land; she had purchased for $250 in 1866 and sold it in 1884 for $1500. Entrepreneur that she was, Mason built a commercial building on the remaining land and began renting office space. This was her entry into the highly profitable real estate boom in an exploding LA economy. Over the years Mason acquired many parcels of LA property; as most of her investments became prime urban real estate Biddy, the ex-slave, acquired considerable wealth. It must have been in the genes because her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, a real estate developer and politician, eventually became the richest African-American in LA.

Still, the prosperous Mason was better known and is remembered not as an entrepreneur but as a philanthropist. From her residence on Spring Street she fed newcomers and the homeless, welcomed the poor of all races, supported churches, schools and provided aid to inmates she visited regularly. She was lovingly known as “Grandma” or “Auntie” Mason.

In 1872 Mason and her son-in-law Charles Owens founded and financed the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first black church in LA. The church still stands at 2270 South Harvard Street.

Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery in LA. Nearly a century later, on March 27, 1988, her grave was marked at an unveiling ceremony attended by the Mayor, other city dignitaries, and about three thousand members of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

November 16, 1989, was declared Biddy Mason Day.

Today the life and generosity of Bridget Mason are commemorated in a memorial and art installation in the Broadway Spring Center, near the Spring Street residence where Biddy had lived since 1866. Biddy Mason Park, designed by landscape architects Burton & Spitz, features courtyards and walkways and a fountain made of water pipes. A mural in the art park includes inscriptions, images of deeds and maps, and a photograph of Bridget “Biddy” Mason.

Harriet Robinson Scott – A Tireless Quest for Emancipation

It was a couple of years ago when the Bloomington Human Rights Commission and its partners inaugurated the Dred and Harriet Scott Legacy of Courage and Freedom program that I became curious about Harriet Robinson Scott.   Black History Month 2015 inspires me to dig a bit to fill the gap in my learning – or my memory.

Harriet Robinson Scott was born a slave in Virginia in about 1815. Her owner was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent assigned to Fort Snelling circa 1820. In the early 1830’s Taliaferro brought teenager Harriet Robinson with him to Fort Snelling where she became a house servant, contrary to territorial law but allowed by military rules. Fort Snelling was a military fort and fur-trading outpost, well-known to today’s Minnesotans. Though Harriet lived with the slaves, she later based her claim to freedom in the Missouri courts in part on the fact that her having lived in a free territory while at Fort Snelling made her a free woman.

Born into slavery in Virginia about1799 Dred Scott was owned first by Peter Blow from St. Louis. Around 1830 Blow sold Dred to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Dred traveled to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory with Dr. Emerson.

Dred arrived at Fort Snelling in May 1836 with Dr. Emerson. There he worked as the personal servant to Dr. Emerson. Harriet would have been about 21 years old at this time; Dred Scott would have been about 36. Harriet and Dred were married in a civil ceremony in 1836 or 1837; officiating was Major Taliaferro who has also Justice of the Peace for the Fort. Marriage meant that Harriet became the property of Dr. Emerson and assumed duties as the property of the new Mrs. Emerson, Eliza Irene Sanford.

Pregnant but indentured, in April 1838 Harriet had to follow the Emersons when the doctor was transferred to Fort Jessup, Louisiana. In a short time the Emersons relocated to St. Louis, then soon back to Fort Snelling. En route North Harriet gave birth on board the steamer Gipsey. Her first daughter Eliza Scott was thus born in free territory. Harriet stayed with Mrs. Emerson at Fort Snelling for two more years.

When Dr. Emerson was transferred to Florida in 1840 the Scott family was sent to St. Louis where they were hired out to work for other people while the Emersons collected their wages. In St. Louis Harriet gave birth to a second daughter, Lizzy.

In 1843 Dr. Emerson died suddenly leaving Dred, Harriet and their two daughters in the hands of his widow. Mrs. Emerson moved in with her proslavery father, Alexander, on his plantation in north St. Louis County. For the next three years, Harriet and Dred worked for other people while Mrs. Emerson collected their wages.

Then came the turning point in the Scotts’ lives. In 1846 Harriet Robinson Scott took legal action to claim her freedom. On April 6 of that year the couple filed separate petitions in the St. Louis Circuit Court to gain their freedom from Irene Sanford Emerson. The Scotts had friends in St. Louis who had been granted freedom if they had lived in free states. The hope was that the Scotts had a chance for freedom, based on their years living at Fort Snelling. When their cases came to trial in June 1847 they were dismissed on a technicality.

Though their lawyer requested a new trial, before that retrial took place Irene Emerson made arrangements for the Scotts to be under the custody of the sheriff of St. Louis County. There they remained for nine years, until March 1857; during all this time the sheriff was responsible for hiring them out and collecting and keeping their wages until the freedom suit was resolved.

After several delays, including a huge fire and a cholera outbreak, Harriet Scott’s case was heard in January 1850. The jury ruled in her favor….

Mrs. Emerson and her brother John A Sanford were disinclined to lose their valuable human property. Mrs. Emerson appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Before it came to trial, a decision was made to combine the cases of Harriet and Dred Scott, the understanding being that the outcome of the case would apply to Harriet and their two daughters. Harriet’s wait to be free continued.

Meanwhile, Cupid came to the rescue. Irene Emerson moved to Springfield, Mass where she met and married Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, an antislavery Congressman

Later, the groom claimed ignorance of his wife’s pending court case and of the fact that she owned slaves. The case was turned over to Mrs. Chafee’s brother, John Sanford. In March 1852 the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the right of slave owners, reversed the earlier ruling and rejected the Scotts’ plea for freedom.

The Scott’s were undeterred. In 1852 Charles Edmund LaBeaume, a supporter of the Scotts, hired Harriet from the sheriff.   Harriet worked for LaBeaume for $4 a month, Dred for $5 a month. Meanwhile, they continued their quest for freedom. Five years later, after moving the case through the Missouri courts to the Supreme Court, Harriet received a dreaded decision. On March 6, 1857, the court ruled that Harriet, Dred, Eliza and Lizzie Scott should remain slaves. Soon thereafter, when John Sanford died, Dr. Chaffee insisted that ownership of the Scott family be transferred to Taylor Blow, son of Peter Blow, Dred Scott’s owner. Blow then freed the entire family.

Dred Scott lived as a free man for just one year. In 1858 he died of tuberculosis. Harriet worked as a “free Negro” laundress in St. Louis for many years. She died of “general disability” at age 71 on June 17, 1876. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, a St. Louis cemetery for Black Americans.

The Dred and Harriet Scott Interpretive Plaques were unveiled two years ago. The Plaques and Dred Scott Playfield, originally dedicated by the City of Bloomington in 1971, are at 10820 Bloomington Ferry Road. For additional information contact the Bloomington Human Rights Commission (humanrights@bloomingtonMN.gov) or Bloomington Parks and Rec (parksrec@bloomingtonmn.gov)