Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason: Los Angeles Pioneer

Los Angeles around 1860
Los Angeles around 1860, when Biddy Mason arrived here

In honor of Black History Month (this month) and Women’s History Month (in March) we’re celebrating the life and achievements of Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason. An African American woman who was born into slavery in the old South, Biddy was brought to Los Angeles in the 1850’s (much against her will), only to become a free woman, and then a property developer and much beloved community leader, before dying a very wealthy lady, in 1891.

Her story shines a light on early Los Angeles history and the racial tensions that existed here back then, even though California was a free state. In spite of the fact that there were huge barriers to her progress, as both a woman and African American, there were nevertheless greater opportunities here than would have been available to her either in the South or even on the East Coast. There’s no doubt that Biddy made the most of those opportunities.

Los Angeles in the 1850’s

California, along with most of the western third of what’s now the U.S. had only just become part of the U.S. at the time, after the Mexican-American War of 1846-8. If someone outside the state had heard of it that was almost certainly only because of the Gold Rush, which at the time was just subsiding (in the space of eight months in 1849 the population of San Francisco had gone from about 500 people to 25,000).

Los Angeles (as it was only just becoming known as then) had a reputation for being a Wild West town, a dirty and dangerous place that was a long way from being in the vicinity to the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t a place that many people wanted to visit. And even if they did, it was a hard place to get to, necessitating, depending on where you were starting, long and dangerous sea voyages by ship, or long and dangerous land journeys by foot or wagon.

It was, however, arguably a much more diverse place than anywhere else in the U.S. The last Mexican Governor, Pio Pico, was of African and native Mexican ancestry, as were many others in the town and, as the decade wore on, a (comparatively) large population of Chinese people, brought to California by the Gold Rush, had made a home for themselves in LA. There were also still a lot of people of Tongva heritage, the First Americans who had lived in the Los Angeles area for the previous thousand years and, as you would expect, there were a lot of Europeans and Americans.

During this period, African-Americans struggled to find a place for themselves in the nascent town of less than five thousand people. Lynching, illegal bounty hunters and California’s wishy-washy commitment to equal rights for all Americans dogged them in their efforts to find work, raise their families and generally live their lives. In this they were far from alone. Los Angeles at the time was a very hierarchical place, with wealthy white men at the very top of the pyramid, and everyone else below (indeed, a black woman would have been at the very bottom of it).

It was into this world that Biddy Mason entered, on New Year’s Day 1856, in dramatic fashion.

Biddy Mason’s Early Life

Born in Georgia in 1818, the teenage Biddy was taken from her family and given as a wedding present to one Robert Smith, a Mississippian landholder and recent convert to Mormonism. She had no education and would never be able to read or write, but she learned about child-birth and herbal medicines from other slave women and became highly regarded as a midwife.

While working for Smith, Biddy gave birth to three daughters: Ellen, Ann and Harriet – all, apparently, fathered by her master. This was a not uncommon experience for black female slaves at the time.

Biddy Mason
Only known photograph of Biddy Mason

Smith was inspired by Mormon church leaders to move West and so Biddy and her children were compelled to follow him to establish a new Mormon community, in what would become Salt Lake City, Utah (at that time part of Mexico). In 1848 she walked with her youngest on her back and two other daughters in tow for two thousand miles, behind Smith’s wagon. Biddy’s responsibilities included serving as a midwife to several black and white babies born en route.

Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – Biddy’s migration was not yet complete, as several years later Smith and his household would set out once again, this time for San Bernardino, California, to establish another Mormon community. Ignoring Brigham Young’s warning that slavery was illegal in California, Smith brought Mason and his other slaves nearly a thousand miles through the mountains and over the high plains, to the new community. 

Biddy Mason Gains Her Freedom

You might very well have thought that Smith would have sated his thirst for travel at this point, however, several years later, in December 1855, Smith decided to move to Texas. He had begun to fear the loss of his slaves, and desired to move to the South, which still allowed slavery and where he would be able to sell them for a profit. This was all the more important as bad business decisions by the Church had impacted Smith’s own finances.

However Robert Owens, a successful black businessman in Los Angeles, had a vested interest in Biddy because one of his sons was romantically involved with Mason’s seventeen year-old daughter, Ellen. When Owens told the County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally transported out of the state, the lawman quickly gathered a posse and took off in pursuit, apprehending Smith’s party at their camp in the Santa Monica mountains and bringing the group to the small town of Los Angeles on January 1, 1856.

Biddy still had to sue Smith in court for her freedom though. Smith did not appear himself, but nonetheless claimed that she and her family were not slaves, but servants. Since California law at the time prohibited black people from testifying in court, Biddy couldn’t speak on her own behalf, so Owens had to get a local lawyer to represent Biddy.

When Smith bribed Biddy’s lawyer to drop the case it didn’t look good for her. Nevertheless Judge Benjamin Hayes met with her privately in his chambers, which was allowable under law, and she made clear that she did not want to move to Texas with Smith. Soon afterwards Hayes found in Biddy’s favor citing California’s constitution, which prohibited slavery.

And it further appearing by satisfactory proof to the judge here, that all of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom, and are free and cannot be held in slavery or involuntary servitude, it is therefore argued that they are entitled to their freedom and are free forever.

Judge Benjamin Hayes

At long last, on January 21, 1856, at the age of thirty-eight years old, Biddy became a free person – along with fourteen others. It’s hard to imagine how she must have felt.

From Property to Property Owner

Biddy then moved to Los Angeles, accepting an invitation to live with the Owens family, and her life began to take a turn for the better. Her daughter Ellen married Robert’s son, Charles, and Biddy herself began to work for Dr. John Griffin, a Los Angeles physician who was the brother-in-law of Judge Hayes. She quickly became much sought-after as a nurse and midwife, assisting in hundreds of births, to mothers of all races and social classes. She also gained a reputation for her herbal remedies.

Earning $2.50 a day working for Griffin, Biddy thriftily saved up the then princely sum of $250 over ten years. Using that nest egg, in 1866, she bought three lots on a then-remote block of Spring Street, becoming one of the first African American women to ever own property in Los Angeles. There, on one parcel of her property, she built a clapboard house, which she occupied for the rest of her life. On the other plots she built small houses to rent for additional income.

It was a great investment. As the town rapidly grew, after the transcontinental railroad reached Los Angeles in 1876, this ex-slave revealed a hitherto dormant talent for entrepreneurialism, buying several more lots, and developing those, before buying more land and so on. Through her investments, as the town continued to develop, she became one of the most important citizens of LA. As Jackie Broxton, executive director of the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation, put it succinctly:

Slaves knew the value of property more than anybody else, because they were property.

By the 1880’s Biddy had become probably the wealthiest African American in Los Angeles. She spoke fluent Spanish and was a well-known figure, dining on occasion at the home of Pio Pico, who by then was known as a wealthy cattle rancher and owner of the finest hotel in town, Pico House.

Grandma Mason

Due to her kind and giving spirit many called her “Grandma” Mason and she had become a revered community leader, through feeding and sheltering the poor, and visiting prisoners in the jailhouse, bringing them gifts and other help. She was instrumental in founding a traveler’s aid center and an elementary school for black children.

Biddy also organized the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American church in the Los Angeles, in her living room. Their first church was built at a site donated by Biddy on Azuza Street, in what’s now Little Tokyo. The Church is still going strong to this day, and is an integral part of the community.

Biddy Mason died in 1891 at the age of seventy-three years old and was buried in an unmarked grave at the Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. By that time the small town that she’d first seen thirty five years earlier had become a bustling town of over fifty-thousand inhabitants. It’s said that she left an inheritance of $300,000 – a fortune in those days (and still a lot today!).

Legacy of Biddy Mason

If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.

Frequent saying of Biddy Mason

Ellen’s husband, Charles, continued his family’s stabling and provisioning business successfully, and Biddy’s grandson, Robert Curry Owens, was a prominent Southern Californian businessman, said to be the most influential black man in California. He remained a well-known and respected figure all his life, dying in 1932.

Nearly a century after her death her incredible accomplishments were finally given the respect they were due when a tombstone marking her grave was unveiled in a ceremony attended by Mayor Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, and several thousand members of the F.A.M.E. church. November 16, 1989, was officially declared Biddy Mason Day in Los Angeles and the following day the Broadway Spring Center, where Biddy’s homestead once stood, was opened. The site includes an eighty-one foot memorial wall, which is dedicated to Biddy and tells her story, and is known as Biddy Mason Park.

Today Biddy’s descendants continue to live in Southern California.

If you have any feedback on Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason: Los Angeles Pioneer please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter) and Maggie Wineland (Twitter)

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