Chapter 26 – Biddy Mason

Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.

Biddy (Bridget) Mason was born to an enslaved mother in Georgia in August 1818. She was sold and taken from them as a young child. Eventually, Robert Mays Smith and his wife, Rebecca, came to own Biddy.

Biddy learned quickly through observation and from the knowledge shared by other enslaved people about child-rearing, herbal medicine, midwifery, farming, and livestock care.

Traveling Mormon missionaries shared the church message with enslavers like Robert Smith. Mormons did not require enslavers to free those they enslaved as a condition of church membership.

Missionaries could only teach and baptize enslaved people if their enslavers agreed. It is unknown whether they baptized Biddy into the Mormon church when Smith and his wife converted.

Biddy was in her early twenties when Smith decided to move his family and belongings to Utah. At the time, his property included people like Biddy and her three young daughters, Ellen, Ann, and infant Harriet. Hannah, another woman enslaved by Smith, also had young children.

Since raping and impregnating enslaved women was common, Smith may have been the father of one or more of these children.

Like all pioneers, Smith chose what to sell, leave behind, or take. Nothing in becoming Mormon had changed his heart about participating in human bondage. He was not worried about how other saints would welcome him when he arrived in Utah with enslaved people. The free labor they provided made them valuable commodities.

Although they traveled in different companies, they each arrived in Utah in the fall of 1848. Daniel’s faith and freedom led him there. Biddy’s faith was irrelevant, and her free will was non-existent.

I wonder if they ever passed one another. If so, did Biddy gaze downward, showing she knew her place? Did Daniel acknowledge her with a tip of his hat, a glance, or a brief smile?

In a ledger titled “Slave Inhabitants in Utah County,” a clerk records in old-fashioned cursive the African American men, women, and children enslaved by Mormons. The clerk recorded the enslaver’s name, the number of people they enslaved, their names, ages, sex, and color, whether black, yellow, or mulatto. There is a column to mark whether they are fugitives or “deaf, blind, insane, or idiotic.”

The clerk noted eleven people as belonging to Robert Smith. None were men. Biddy and Hannah were in their twenties, and the children were between the ages of one and thirteen.

Biddy and her daughter Ann are the only ones listed as black. The rest were described as yellow or mulatto. It isn’t a far stretch to believe that Robert Mays Smith fathered some of the children listed. Black women’s bodies did not belong to themselves, with rape being a common practice among enslavers.

If Smith fathered any of Hannah or Biddy’s children, this goes squarely against the Mormon doctrine, which forbade the mixing of races. That act was sinful and punishable by ex-communication and death.

The clerk’s final remark about the people enslaved by Robert Mays noted they were all going to California. Biddy’s time in Utah lasted just a few years because Robert Mays Smith was heeding Brigham Young’s call for saints to move westward to expand the church’s reach, power, and wealth. He moved to join other Mormons colonizing communities there.

Even after California prohibited slavery, Mormons still brought their enslaved with them, who were unaware of their right to be free because they were not allowed to read and write. Mormon enslavers wanted to keep their free labor force even if it meant breaking the law.

Although Smith never told Biddy, under California law, she was free; eventually, she learned the truth. This prompted Smith’s plan to move to Texas, where slavery was still legal. He told Biddy he would free them once they arrived in Texas.

Biddy did not believe him. If freedom is what he wanted for her, why not do it here and now? She feared once in Texas; Smith would sell and take her children from her. I wonder if she believed Smith would rape and impregnate her daughters. In Texas, Smith would have the legal standing to do all this.

Mormons have distanced themselves from our participation in slavery in several ways, including omitting these facts in church history books and classes, denying our involvement, or arguing that Mormon enslavers practiced a more humane version.

Biddy’s courageous story of fighting against her Mormon enslaver proves otherwise. If Robert Mays Smith was so benevolent, why did she not trust his promise of freedom and choose to continue to be cared for under his “gentle” hand? Instead, Biddy and Smith’s other enslaved black people sued for their release.

After Robert Mays sent his wife and children to Texas, he forced Biddy and the others into hiding. Fortunately, free black men enlisted help from sheriffs to find his hideout serving him with an order to appear in court.

Smith had many opportunities to be a decent human being. Instead, he claimed Biddy and the others wanted to go to Texas and bribed her lawyer not to appear in court. As a black person, Biddy could not testify against him in court.

At some point, Smith realized his attempts were failing. He never showed up in court, scurrying himself away to Texas.

Smith’s legacy includes his willingness to enslave others and the nefarious lengths he went to continue doing so. Any wealth Smith passed to future generations is tainted by its ties to human bondage. I wonder if his ancestors own up to this or have done anything to make amends.

The judge issued an order granting Biddy and the others freedom in one of the country’s most substantial emancipation suits.

It was a joyful day when after nearly forty years of enslavement, Biddy was, for the first time, in charge of her own life. Her daughters, Ellen, Ann, and Harriet, were about eighteen, twelve, and nine. According to one record, twelve-year-old Ann only enjoyed one year of liberation before her death.

Working as a nurse and midwife for the first time, Biddy, not her enslaver, benefited from her skills and strong work ethic.

Knowing the value of land ownership, Biddy saved for years to become one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. She spent time caring for the poor and visiting prisoners. Part of her philanthropy included establishing a school for children.

Biddy had spent years among the Mormons witnessing the church’s treatment of black people.

As a free woman, she wanted nothing to do with a church whose doctrine described her dark skin as a curse. Instead, Biddy held meetings in her home with others who wanted to worship, free from oppression and disdain. She bought and donated land to help found Los Angeles’ First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At age seventy-two, Biddy. Although she’d spent over half her life enslaved, she still made several meaningful contributions to her community during her years of freedom. Biddy died a wealthy woman with assets valued today at millions of dollars.

If Biddy had never left Utah, she might have been one of the millions of black people enslaved from their first breath to their last.

Nearly a hundred years after her death, Biddy was honored during a ceremony that unveiled a memorial park as a testament to the formidable, intelligent, and generous woman she was. The Biddy Mason Memorial Park has images depicting her life, including agave leaves, a midwife’s bag, wagon wheels, a survey map of Los Angeles, and most importantly, her freedom papers.

Although I attended church services every Sunday and seminary religious classes during the week, I never learned about Mormonism and slavery or incredible people like Biddy Mason until recently.

Until that changes and every Mormon knows Biddy Mason’s story and who she was, despite the church, they are not doing nearly enough, and for that, they should feel eternal shame.

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