Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891), Businesswoman and Philanthropist
• One of the first African-Americans to own land in Los Angeles
• Smart businesswoman who donated generously
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born in 1818. She may have been born on Robert Marion Smith’s plantation in Mississippi or perhaps she was simply purchased by him when she was still young. In either case, her fortunes followed those of the Smith family until she gained her freedom.
Biddy had no formal education. She did learn about midwifery and herbal medicines from the other slave women and healers, and became well-regarded as a midwife.
To Utah and California
In the 1840s Robert Smith decided he wanted to be a Mormon and follow Brigham Young to Utah Territory. (The Mormons who were encouraging him to come urged him to free his slaves prior to the trip; Smith did not.) Leaving Mississippi with his belongings and members of his household (including 10-14 slaves), the group undertook the 2,000 mile journey. Travel was arduous.
Biddy’s job was herding the cattle they were bringing with them, fixing meals, and acting as a nurse or midwife to anyone who needed her. She also had three daughters of her own to look after; they were thought to have been fathered by Smith.
In 1851 Smith decided to move on to San Bernardino, California where Brigham Young was starting another Mormon community. All members of the household, including Biddy, moved with the Smiths. Smith probably did not know that when California was admitted to the Union in 1850, it came in as a free state and slavery was forbidden. However, it is unlikely he would have worried about it. Slave owners were rarely challenged, and if they were, they rarely lost the case.
However, African-Americans knew their rights. Biddy’s daughter Ellen had been dating a free black man, Charles Owens, the son of a respected Los Angeles business owner. Charles helped Biddy file a petition with the court for freedom. In January 1856, the judge granted Biddy and her daughters their freedom just as Smith was trying to escape for Texas, a slave state; Smith’s other slaves are thought to have been freed as well.
Biddy had no legal last name when initially freed. She chose to take the middle name of a Mormon apostle whom she must have respected, so the newly-named Biddy Mason moved to Los Angeles, and accepted an invitation to live with the Owens family. (Her daughter Ellen later married Charles.) She quickly became well regarded as a nurse and midwife, assisting in hundreds of births to mothers of all races and social classes.
Biddy worked hard and was frugal and soon became financially independent. Ten years later, in 1866, she bought a house and sizeable property on Spring Street for $250, and she became one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles.
In 1884, she sold a part of the land for $1500 and built a commercial building on the remaining land and began renting office space. She continued making wise real estate decisions, and eventually amassed a sizable fortune for the time.
Biddy was very generous to all around her. She and gave food and shelter to the poor of all races, donated to churches attended by both black and white, helped with schools, and visited prison inmates with gifts and aid. Needy people often lined up in front of her house on Spring Street.
In 1872, Biddy 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 Los Angeles, then at 8th and Towne. The church still exists and is now located at 2270 South Harvard Street.
Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. Ninety-seven years later, her grave was at last marked. The unveiling was attended by Mayor Tom Bradley and about three thousand members of the First African Methodist Episcopal church.
Biddy Mason Park
Today Biddy Mason’s life is commemorated in a series of plaques on a wall in a park near where her original home was located on Spring Street. Designed by landscape architects Burton & Spitz, Biddy Mason Park features courtyards and walkways and has an unusual fountain made of water pipes.