Remembering Biddy Mason Part I

Long Road to Freedom

If you are from Los Angeles, you may have heard of Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818–1891), an African American pioneer slave and midwife who, along with 13 other women and children, were emancipated after winning a landmark lawsuit against slave owner Robert Smith in 1856. Or maybe you haven’t heard of her? In which case, get ready to be impressed! In our next two episodes, we dive deep into the history of Biddy Mason — from her decades of enslavement, to her live as the free woman who built (Black) Los Angeles, California.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason, USC Digital Library, California Historical Society Collection.

In this episode, we will learn about Biddy’s early years from folks from the Biddy Mason Collaborative (or ‘the Biddy Mason Justice League’ as we like to call them) — a group of organizers and historians who have gathered to uncover as much as they can about the woman who built Black L.A. — and working hard to keep her memory alive. We’ll talk about the WPA Era mural by Bernard Zakheim that Biddy is featured in (front-and-center working as a medical practitioner), Biddy’s journey out West, and the trial that led to her gaining her freedom along with 13 other women and children.

WPA Era mural titled, “History of Medicine in California”, by Bernard Zakheim.

Biddy was born in Hancock County, Georgia and soon purchased by Robert Smith and his wife Rebecca. While enslaved in the Smith household, Biddy met another enslaved woman Hannah Embers, who had been Rebecca’s childhood slave. Biddy and Hannah formed a special bond that kept them alive through all the torture — physical and mental. In fact, our guests explained that Smith and his son may very likely been the father of Hannah and Biddy’s light-skinned children.

By the 1840s, the Smiths converted to Mormonism and moved Biddy, Hannah, their children, and others from Mississippi to Utah, where they lived for some years before relocating to San Bernardino, California, which was a free state. Then Smith decided he wanted to go to Texas. Their enslavement was not only unjust, but, in California at least, illegal. With the support of the free Blacks in the community, Biddy decided to plead her case to a judge, and in a landmark legal decision, she was freed.

And yet. Have you heard of Biddy? Do you know the mark she left upon the city that she called home? The ways you can see her influence etched into the very buildings and streets that stand to this day?


This episode we speak with folks from the Biddy Mason Collaborative: project co-directors Sarah “Sally” Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Kevin Waite, an American history professor at Durham University (and author of West of Slavery); as well as Jackie Broxton, Executive Director of the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation and Laura Voisin George, an architectural historian (and PhD candidate at UCSB).


Urban Roots is a podcast that takes a deep dive into little known stories from urban history. It is an offshoot of Urbanist Media, a not-for-profit anti-racist community preservation collaborative.


Host and Executive Producer: Deqah Hussein-Wetzel.

Host and Executive Producer: Vanessa Maria Quirk.

Editor: Connor Lynch.

Mix: Andrew Callaway.

Music: Adaam James Levin-Areddy.

Support us by Donating: Venmo | PayPal

Find Us Online: Website | PayPal | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook | YouTube



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Urban Roots Podcast

Urban Roots Podcast

Digging into little knowns stories of urban history