Noting the recent spate of blog posts celebrating the lives of African American women, a dear friend in Los Angeles sent me a note asking if I knew anything of the life of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Best known to Angelinos who enjoy the urban park that celebrates her legacy Biddy Mason was an unschooled slave woman who became a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist – a legend in her adopted Los Angeles.
The brief story that my friend shared inspired a quest to learn about this truly unique woman. A quick search unearthed resources in abundance.
Bridget (she had no surname) was born a slave in 1818, probably in Georgia. She was given as a wedding gift to Robert Smith and his bride Rebecca Crosby who owned a plantation in Logtown, Mississippi.
During this era missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) were proselytizing in the area. In the mid 1840’s Smith converted to Mormonism and decided to join the Mormon community being established by Brigham Young in the Utah Territory. This meant that, in spite of advice to free his slaves prior to the mission, Smith relocated his entire household, including slaves. In the case of Biddy and the other slaves, it meant a 1700 mile walk from Mississippi to Utah, a grueling trek during which Biddy prepared meals, herded the cattle, and served as midwife, a skill she had learned from other slaves. She also cared for her own three daughters who may well have been fathered by Smith.
In 1851 Smith moved his household again, this time in a 150-wagon caravan to San Bernardino, California, where a new Mormon community was under development. History generously suggests that Smith was unaware that California was a free state in which slavery was forbidden. In any event, Smith kept his retinue intact with no apparent challenge.
Freed slaves knew their rights, however. Along the way Biddy met Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, free blacks, who urged her to legally contest her slave status once the caravan reached the free state of California. Biddy received additional encouragement from free black friends, Robert and Minnie Owens whose son Charles Owens was romantically involved with Biddy’s daughter Ellen.
Meanwhile, slaveholder Smith concluded that he and his household of slaves were not safe in free California. In January 1856 Smith made a plan to relocate to Texas, a slave state. Robert Owens, a respected Los Angeles business owner, informed the LA County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally held and transported. The Sheriff quickly gathered a posse that apprehended Smith’s Texas-bound wagon train in Cajon Pass, California. Smith was prevented from leaving the state.
With the help of these new friends, Biddy petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of thirteen women and children. LA District Judge Benjamin Ignatius Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor of of the illegally held slaves, citing California’s 1850 Constitution that prohibited slavery. At the last minute, Judge Hayes granted freedom to Biddy, her three daughters and ten other women and children who had been enslaved by Smith.
It was on the occasion of her emancipation that Bridget assumed the surname Mason, the middle name of Amasa Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Mayor of San Bernardino; Biddy had known and worked with members of Lyman’s household. Biddy Mason and three daughters moved to LA where they accepted the invitation to live with the Owens family. In time Biddy’s daughter Ellen married Charles Owens while Biddy established herself as a highly regarded nurse and midwife and served as a domestic to Dr. John S. Griffin, a prominent LA physician.
A frugal money manager, Biddy saved enough to purchase property at 331 South Spring Street where she built a clapboard house in which she lived until her death in 1891. She was one of the first black women to own land in LA. In 1884 she sold a portion of the land; she had purchased for $250 in 1866 and sold it in 1884 for $1500. Entrepreneur that she was, Mason built a commercial building on the remaining land and began renting office space. This was her entry into the highly profitable real estate boom in an exploding LA economy. Over the years Mason acquired many parcels of LA property; as most of her investments became prime urban real estate Biddy, the ex-slave, acquired considerable wealth. It must have been in the genes because her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, a real estate developer and politician, eventually became the richest African-American in LA.
Still, the prosperous Mason was better known and is remembered not as an entrepreneur but as a philanthropist. From her residence on Spring Street she fed newcomers and the homeless, welcomed the poor of all races, supported churches, schools and provided aid to inmates she visited regularly. She was lovingly known as “Grandma” or “Auntie” Mason.
In 1872 Mason 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 LA. The church still stands at 2270 South Harvard Street.
Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery in LA. Nearly a century later, on March 27, 1988, her grave was marked at an unveiling ceremony attended by the Mayor, other city dignitaries, and about three thousand members of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
November 16, 1989, was declared Biddy Mason Day.
Today the life and generosity of Bridget Mason are commemorated in a memorial and art installation in the Broadway Spring Center, near the Spring Street residence where Biddy had lived since 1866. Biddy Mason Park, designed by landscape architects Burton & Spitz, features courtyards and walkways and a fountain made of water pipes. A mural in the art park includes inscriptions, images of deeds and maps, and a photograph of Bridget “Biddy” Mason.