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Los Angeles | L.A. Then and Now

In Key Court Case, Slave Tested State's Commitment to Freedom

January 27, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid the din of traffic and the buzz of busy sidewalks, brown-baggers take refuge in a vest-pocket park behind the Bradbury Building. A timeline at the park's entrance memorializes a former slave who had compassion for the poor, turned poverty into profit and helped to rescue 13 others from slavery.

In 1849, as slavery was wrenching the nation and California was preparing to become a state, delegates to a statehood convention took a bold stand and wrote in the state Constitution: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude unless for the punishment of crimes shall ever be tolerated in this state."

Under the law, any slave brought into the state was automatically free. However, if the former slave later voluntarily returned to a slave state, he or she would once again become a slave. The law added that anyone persuading a black person by false promises or misrepresentation to leave the security and freedom of California would be guilty of kidnapping. This was how Biddy Mason became a free woman and ultimately a famous one.

She was born a slave in Georgia in 1818 and named Bridget. She was just an infant when she was sold to a slave owner in Mississippi, where her new owners began to call her Biddy. When she turned 18, she was presented as a wedding gift to Robert Marion Smith and his bride, Rebecca.

Biddy became an expert in livestock, herbal medicine, nursing and midwifery, skills that later enabled her to earn a living as a free woman. She bore three daughters in 10 years; the younger two were fathered by her owner, Smith.

Soon after Biddy's youngest was born, the Smith family, which had converted to the Mormon religion, joined a wagon train and headed for Utah. The wagon train's population was 56 white men, women and children and 34 slaves.

While others rode in wagons or on horseback, Biddy, a woman of masculine strength, carried her nursing baby on her back, as she and her other daughters, ages 10 and 4, trekked behind the wagon dust for seven months, herding 300 livestock as well as keeping the six Smith children from straying. Biddy played midwife to both women and animals giving birth.

Three years after their arrival in Salt Lake City, the Smiths and their slaves were among 437 pioneers who trekked 800 miles across deep desert sand, making the Mormon faith's first journey to San Bernardino, where they set up a trading post and missionary church in 1851.

Biddy befriended a number of free blacks who settled in the area, including Charles and Elizabeth Rowan, who would be instrumental in securing her freedom. Biddy and the others were unsure of the California law that made them free. Smith, whom they trusted, told them a different story.

When Smith's wife died, he grew dissatisfied with the Mormon Church and its colony. Fearing that he would lose his slaves to a growing freedom movement, he decided to go to Texas, where slave-owning was still legal. He lied to Biddy and the others that they would be just as free in Texas as they were in California. Although Biddy felt uneasy about the move, she and the others followed him first to Los Angeles, for supplies. Smith, not wanting to bring attention to his slave caravan, camped in Santa Monica Canyon.

In the meantime, the freed slave Elizabeth Rowan, who distrusted Smith, sent word to Los Angeles County Sheriff Frank Dewitt that Biddy and the other slaves needed help. Dewitt, aided by wealthy black businessman Robert Owens, rode to their camp and served Smith a writ of habeas corpus. He was ordered to appear in court for "persuading and enticing and seducing persons of color to go out of the state of California."

For their safety, the sheriff and Owens escorted the slaves to the jail in Los Angeles. There, they were kept under the watchful eye of Deputy Frank Carpenter, who would later testify about the slaves' fear of their master.

News of what was happening spread throughout the town of about 2,000, only a dozen or so of whom were black. For three days, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Hayes' courtroom was the focus of the whole settlement.

On Jan. 19, 1856, Biddy, leader of the group of 14 slaves, walked into the courtroom with her court-appointed attorney. Smith, represented by attorney Alonzo Thomas, argued that the black women and children were free, "members of his family" who wanted to go to Texas.

Barred from speaking in court because she was black, Biddy was heard nonetheless after Hayes invited her and two other witnesses into his chambers.

"I have always done what I have been told to do," she said. "I always feared this trip to Texas since I first heard of it. Mr. Smith told me I would be just as free in Texas as here," Biddy told Hayes.

That evening, after court adjourned, Smith's overseer, Hartwell Cottrell, tried to induce two of the black children into going to Texas with him. The judge learned of it and signed a warrant for Cottrell's arrest on suspicion of attempted kidnapping. But Cottrell was already one step ahead of the law, heading out of town.

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