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Bridget “Biddy” Mason, Former Slave, Landowner, and Philanthropist

Only known photograph of Biddy Mason. She is dressed in a suit, a white blouse underneath. Her hair is pulled back neatly in a bun.

Biddy Mason was one of the first Black landowners in Los Angeles. She was trained as a nurse midwife, saved her money, and invested carefully in land.

Philanthropically, she found many ways to aid others. She started a church, helped start an orphanage, and always made time for patients who needed help.

Mason made many advances in her life, but she was never taught to read or write. All her contractual deals were signed with an “X.” But like any smart businessperson, she always asked for and kept copies of her contracts.

Early Life

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in 1818. The Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation places her birth in Hancock County, Georgia. (Other sources differ, but the foundation has family involvement, which gives added credibility.)

At some point, Mason was purchased by Robert Marion Smith who lived on a plantation in Mississippi. From here, her fortunes followed that of the Smith family.

She had no formal education, but she learned nursing and midwifery from other enslaved women and became very skilled at it.

Moving West

In the 1840s, Robert Smith decided he wanted to be a Mormon and follow Brigham Young to Utah Territory. (The Mormons urged him to free his slaves prior to the trip. Smith did not.)

A commemorative panel documenting one stage of her life.
One of the panels at Biddy Mason Park

He left Mississippi with his family, household belongings, and 10-14 slaves. The trip was arduous. They traveled over 2000 miles to reach the Mormon settlement.

Each slave had specific responsibilities. Biddy helped to fix meals for the entire group, supervised the children during travel, and aided in herding the cattle they were bringing with them.

By this time, she had three daughters of her own. At least one of them was thought to be fathered by Smith. She also served as nurse or midwife as needed.

California Free State

By 1851, Brigham Young was eager to start another Mormon community, this one in southern California. Some of the group—including Smith–decided to be among those who settled in San Bernardino, California. All members of the Smith 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. Slavery was forbidden. However, it is unlikely Smith and other slaveholders would have worried about it. Slave owners were rarely challenged, and if they were, they did not expect to lose in a court of law.

Settling in San Bernardino

For the first year or two, Smith’s enslaved workers continued the life they knew. But because other Blacks in the area knew that California was a free state, those living with Smith began to hear from others that they now had a legal right to freedom.

But there was no easy way around Robert Smith. Possibly based on the “free state” issue, he informed his household they were moving on to Texas. There he would be legally able to own slaves. However, he assured his household staff that they would be granted their freedom once they helped him get the family to Texas.

Owens Family Befriends Biddy

As free people, Robert Owens and his wife Winnie moved to Los Angeles from Texas in 1852. They had two daughters and one son.  Robert knew the livery business, so he established one on a main thoroughfare in Los Angeles. The family was literate and knew their rights.

A current day photograph showing a portion of the wall with Biddy Mason's timeline explained on it
Biddy Mason Park, Los Angeles Conservancy

At some point, Biddy got to know the Owens family and other free Blacks in Los Angeles. As Biddy and her group listened to the free Blacks, they were quite interested. But they didn’t know how to make a plan to get away.

With Smith’s plan to move on to Texas, Biddy and the other household workers were up against a deadline.  It is thought that either Robert Owens or another community leader tipped off the sheriff about the Smith homestead. Owens was also instrumental in helping Biddy prepare the paperwork she would need.

First, Robert Smith was served with a writ of habeas corpus when he stopped for supplies at a store in Santa Monica. The writ was to ensure that he would appear in court.

In the meantime, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Frank DeWitt visited the Smith household and took all the Black workers into protective custody. That way Smith couldn’t escape to Texas with them. He would need to show up in court.

The legal case, Mason v. Smith (1856), was heard by Judge Benjamin Hayes (1815-1877), a circuit judge who heard cases in Los Angeles and San Bernardino. 

On January 19, 1856, Robert Smith appeared in court and testified before Judge Hayes that the slaves had willingly agreed to help get his family to Texas. Smith assured the judge that he would not hold them after that—they would be set free.

But Hayes was suspicious. Because Black people were not allowed to testify in court, the judge invited all 14 of the affected individuals into his chambers. There, the enslaved people told a different story.

Hayes was a white judge but had the decency to invite the Black enslaved people into his chambers to tell their own stories.
Judge Benjamin Hayes who heard the case

Hayes ruled that the group—all of them–needed to be freed immediately. This was the first ruling of its kind in California and set a precedent for future cases that came before California courts.

Biddy chose “Mason” as her surname for the paperwork that was filed. She also asked that she be given a copy of the legal document so she would always have proof that she was free. 

Moving to Los Angeles

To distance herself from the Smith household in San Bernardino, Biddy Mason brought her daughters to Los Angeles. Despite California’s free state status, it was far from being a safe place for Black people. Many slave owners ignored the law, and there were bounty hunters who traveled the area. They would nab free Black people and try to return them to their former owners.

But Biddy and her family made their way to Robert and Winnie Owens’s household. They were given a place to live with the Owens family. And Robert introduced her to Dr. John S. Griffin. Griffin hired her to work as a nurse and midwife in his practice. While Biddy never learned to read, she was very skilled in her work and spoke Spanish fluently, which was very helpful to Griffin, a white doctor who saw patients of all backgrounds. 

As the families got to know one another, Robert’s son Charles married Biddy’s oldest daughter, Ellen.

Investing in Land

Robert Owens invested in real estate from the time he arrived in California. As Mason saved her money, she, too, followed that lead. Some accounts indicate that land investment was a major focus of her life. More reliable accounts show that it was likely that she was securing her family’s future by owning land on which they could live.

In 1866, Biddy Mason made her first land purchase. She was 48 years old and paid $250 for a lot between 3rd and 4th  on Spring Street. Spring connected with Main Street and was an important thoroughfare.

Two years later, she purchased more land, this time closer to the land owned by Charles Owens on Olive and Charity Street. At that time, this area was considered “out of town.” Today it is in the heart of the older part of the city.

The land on South Spring Street, she told her children, was for their homestead. They would always be able to live in the two-story wooden building she added. (Most homes then were built of wood.) From1878-1890, the family lived there though they owned other properties.

Profiting From Her Investments

In 1875, Mason sold the north half of the Spring Street property to K.H. Jones and Charles M. Wright for $1500.  She sold another lot on Olive Street in 1884 for $2800. At that time, she also had the Spring Street parcel deeded to her grandsons, Robert and Henry. Her daughter, Ellen, Robert’s wife, also was given land to live on until she died.

Biddy Mason never left a business meeting without getting copies of her deeds.

Giving to Others Was Important to Biddy

Biddy was very generous to all around her. She 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 for medical help in front of her house on Spring Street.

Possibly in recognition of the importance of water to Los Angeles, the recirculating fountain is created of water pipes.
Fountain at Biddy Mason Park

The opportunity to worship as they pleased was important to Black people in California. In 1872, Biddy and her son-in-law, Charles Owens, founded and financed the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. This was the first black church in Los Angeles.

The first meetings of congregants were held at Biddy’s house on Spring Street. Soon the church services were moved to a building on Azusa Street, followed by another move to 8th and Towne Streets. Today the church still exists and is located at 2270 South Harvard Street.

Her Death

Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891. Despite being surrounded those she helped and loved, her initial grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles was unmarked.

In the meantime, she was certainly not forgotten. Grandsons Robert and Henry moved their livery from Main Street to Spring Street. In 1905, Robert announced the intention to add a new building with plans for a Biddy Mason Memorial Institute. It was to be dedicated to helping black youth find employment.

Tombstone for Biddy Mason, added to her grave in 1989.

Biddy Mason Park

Before Biddy Mason Park came into existence, there were several other efforts to create a museum or a monument dedicated to Biddy Mason. In the 1980s, a civic group came together with a plan for a park on Spring Street.

Today Biddy Mason’s life is commemorated in a park near where her original home was located. Designed by landscape architects Burton & Spitz, Biddy Mason Park features an 81-foot concrete wall with a timeline detailing Mason’s history of achievements in Los Angeles. There are benches and walkways and an unusual fountain made of water pipes.

Well-regarded Black assemblage artist Betye Saar created a collage reminiscent of Mason’s original wood-frame home.

The park opened on November 16, 1989. L.A.’s first Black Mayor Tom Bradley was there to participate. Around this time, a headstone was created for Biddy Mason’s resting spot. Mayor Tom Bradley was also there to remember one of Los Angeles’s most illustrious citizens.

Descendants

Over the years, I have received many questions about Biddy Mason’s descendants. For this information, I refer you to the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation. The foundation devotes its resources to the care of foster youth. Several family members are involved.

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11 thoughts on “Bridget “Biddy” Mason, Former Slave, Landowner, and Philanthropist”

  1. Pingback: Paul R. Williams (1894-1980), Los Angeles-based Architect | America Comes Alive

  2. Ebenezer Owens-Mason

    I am an Afro-American descendant was
    born in Freetown Sierra Leone in West
    Africa. It is very unsual that I carry both Surnames that are around
    Mrs. Biggy Mason, without us related
    somehow. My big Question is who came
    to Africa from the Owens-Mason family
    and when? thanks Mason

  3. Ebenezer Owens-Mason

    Please give me informations about the rest of the Owens-Mason Family and where they are now.

  4. The primary real estate she owned was donated to be used by the first AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Los Angeles. That land was on Spring Street where she lived. There is now a Biddy Mason park nearby–right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
    http://dornsife.usc.edu/la-walking-tour/biddy-mason-park/

    The question about her descendants is a good one. I don’t know the answer, but now that you’ve asked, I will start listening to see what I can learn.

    Thank you for visiting.
    Kate

  5. Kate,

    The National African-American Museum is opening this month (26th) in Washington, DC. I’ll check with the museum staff to see if Biddy Mason is in some way included. If she isn’t, I’ll circle back to you for some logistical advice. I read elsewhere that among Biddy Mason’s many accomplishments she was essentially LA’s first private parking operator (operating a space where visitors could “park” their wagons, buggys and horses while in town on business). Do you have any information on this? Xerox, the copy people, is one of America’s largest private parking operators. They manage on-street parking for LA, Washington, DC, Dallas, NYC. et al. Xerox’s CEO is an African-American female. I’d like to find out more about this aspect of her life.

  6. Hi John,

    I did not know that. That’s a fascinating connection… I wrote this article a few years ago so let me see if there is new information out there. Do let me know what you learn from the museum…I know they are jammed for the opening. Exciting!
    Kate

  7. Thank you so much! I actually have Biddy Mason on a list of articles to update. I’ve found a lot more information about her, and I am deeply appreciative of your lead re: the video. I will pursue this ….thank you!

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