Bridgett “Biddy” Mason
From Slavery to Landowner Philanthropist
In the 19th century while many one-time slaves later became prosperous there was one unique person who became one of the wealthiest women of her community. However, before that she struggled for the freedom she did not know she had, and then went on to grow the wealth that let her serve her church and her community. And Bridgett “Biddy” Mason did just that, serving as a personal example of her frequent statement: “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.”
As with many former slaves, since they were considered commodities to be bought and sold, accurate life records for them were usually non-existent and it was that way with Biddy. So her birth date of 1818 was not certain but her birthplace—a Georgia farm—was likely to be fact. Even her parentage is unknown, but as a young child she was transferred among several different locations. Finally she was acquired by John Smithson to live on his farm in South Carolina where she worked in various tasks and became skilled in several trades as she did so. She learned about midwifery, tending and managing livestock, and also treating the sick with herbal medicines. Her teachers were usually fellow slave experts.
In 1836 when she was 18 Biddy was given as a wedding gift to Mr. Smithson’s young cousin and her new husband, Rebecca and Robert Smith and moved with them to their Mississippi plantation. At this time she had three children—their fathers unknown—but possibly at least one by her master.
Meanwhile, missionaries of the newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons) were proselytizing in the area, and Biddy’s master and his family converted. Then in 1847 Smith moved his family, workers and livestock towards the Mormon Utah settlement. Like many of the others in the party, Biddy walked the hundreds of miles to their new home and on the way kept busy supervising the livestock, serving as onsite physician, and delivering both Black and white babies.
Once in Utah, Smith and his entourage (after a while) traveled to a new Mormon community in California, but that brought up an interesting issue: Despite advice to free his slaves before he left (California was often anti-slavery in sentiment) Smith did not do so. So Biddy, her family and the others again trekked their way through the mountains, to their new home to the San Bernardino area.
Though Smith may not have known it, as of 1850 as it entered the union California was officially free, so upon arrival Biddy and the other slaves were legally free. However, Biddy was advised by her daughter’s white suitor—a man named Charles Owens—and others to take legal action to achieve her freedom. At the time, the courts usually granted freedom to slaves making the petition, but Biddy and the others did not know that. At the same time Smith—realizing the local sentiment—had decided to move his family and workers to Texas. His plan was to live there and possibly sell his slaves for a profit. Meanwhile he told Biddy and the others they would be free in Texas.
However when Charles Owens and his associates learned about Smith’s plans, they urged Biddy to proceed with her petition for her freedom. In court, Smith claimed that Biddy did not want to go to Texas, then he may have paid Biddy’s lawyer not to come to court. Since in California, Blacks could not legally testify against whites, so Biddy could not be heard. Still, after Smith failed to appear, the judge in 1856 decreed Biddy and her family as free.
Like with most other slaves, Biddy had previously had no legal surname so once freed she took the last name of Mason. It was a name for a local Mormon elder and employer that she admired.
The newly freed Biddy and her children then moved to Los Angeles, to live with the family of wealthy businessman Robert Owens, father of Charles (who would eventually marry Ellen). Once there: Utilizing the skills she had learned while enslaved, she worked as a nurse, midwife and herbal medicine specialist serving all races and classes. She also worked for a prominent LA physician and she cared for many neighbors in a smallpox epidemic.
Biddy earned about #2.50 a day, a good wage for a Black woman at the time but she also helped others who could not afford to pay her. Along the way and over the years she saved her money and lived frugally—eventually saving $250. Then in 1866 she bought several lots on the edge of the city—a purchase that made her one of the first Black women in LA to own land. She built a structure with commercial and residential living spaces on one of the lots where she and her family resided. Biddy used some of the land for gardening, and she also built houses, and other commercial properties. Eventually, this area became prime urban real estate, and the basis for an eventual fortune.
Then in 1872: Biddy and Charles Owens, established and financed the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Black church in L.A., built on land she had donated.
Eventually her neighborhood was growing in value and by the 1890s the financial center of LA was just a block away. Ultimately her property and adjacent areas became the central commercial district of Los Angeles.
But apart from her commercial ventures, Biddy also served in her community. She shared with the poor, visited the prisoners in the local jails and also founded a traveler’s aid center, as well as a grade school for Black children. She even acquired the fond nickname of “Grandma Mason.” At her death in 1891 she was buried in an unmarked grave. However, over time her accomplishments became widely known and with the increased respect, a tombstone was finally erected over her grave in 1988. It was dedicated at a ceremony presided over by LA’s first Black mayor, and drawing thousands of admirers, including members of the First AMC church. A year later the city celebrated “Biddy Mason Day.” In addition, Biddy’s grandson Robert Curry Owens was a real estate developer and politician, and was the wealthiest Black person in the LA area.
Women History Blog
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.