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 we’re remembering an all time Los Angeles legend, Bridget “Biddy” Mason. An African American woman who was born 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 her dying a very wealthy lady, in 1891.

The 1850 census for the city of Los Angeles showed only twelve persons of African descent. In the subsequent years, 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. It was into this world that Biddy Mason entered, on New Year’s Day 1856, in dramatic fashion.

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, 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.

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. 

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 held illegally, the lawman gathered a posse, which apprehended Smith’s party at their camp in the Santa Monica mountains and brought the group to the small town of Los Angeles (as it was only just becoming known then) on January 1, 1856.

So Biddy sued Smith in court for her freedom. Smith did not appear, nonetheless claiming that she and her family were not slaves, but servants. Since California law at the time prohibited blacks from testifying in court, Biddy couldn’t speak on her own behalf. Nevertheless Judge Benjamin Hayes met with her privately in his chambers, where she made clear that she did not want to move to Texas, and soon after he found in her favor, citing California’s constitution, which prohibited slavery. At long last, at the age of thirty-eight years old, Biddy was a free woman – along with fourteen others.

Los Angeles' first courthouse
Los Angeles’ first courthouse, constructed some years after Biddy Mason’s court hearing

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. As the town continued to develop, through her investments 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, the wealthy Los Angeles rancher, African-Mexican and last governor of the Mexican territory of Alta California. Biddy fed and sheltered the poor and visited prisoners in the local jail, bringing gifts and aid. She was instrumental in founding a traveler’s aid center and an elementary school for black children.

Due to her kind and giving spirit many called her “Grandma” Mason and she was a revered community leader. Biddy also organized the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American church in the city, in her living room. Their first church was built at a site donated by Biddy on Azuza Street, in what’s now Little Tokyo

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!).

Ellen’s husband, Charles, also continued his family’s stabling and provisioning business and her grandson, Robert Curry Owens was a prominent Southern Californian businessman who was said to be the most influential black man in California. He remained a well known and respected figure, dying in 1932; however Biddy’s descendants continue to live in Southern California.

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’s

Nearly a century after her death her 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.

Biddy Mason Park in DTLA
Biddy Mason Park in DTLA is on the site of her property, off Broadway

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

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