Bridget “Biddy” Mason
August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891
Notable: Entrepreneur & Philanthropist
Bridget known as “Biddy” was born into slavery and like most enslaved people did not receive a surname at birth. The exact location of her birth is unclear. Most sources list her birthplace as Hancock County, Georgia while others cite Mississippi. What is known is that Biddy was taken from her parents as a young child and moved between plantations in Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
Biddy primarily grew up in South Carolina on a plantation owned by John Smithson. While there she did typical domestic work. Smithson’s cousin Robert Marion Smith married Rebecca Crosby when Biddy was 18 years old. Biddy was sent to the Smith plantation in Logtown, Mississippi as a wedding present for the newlyweds.
At the Smith household, Biddy cared for Rebecca who had health issues as well as the couple’s children. In addition, to nursing others who were unwell and midwifery, Biddy also worked as a field hand and tended to livestock. In time, Biddy gave birth to three daughters at least some of whom, if not all, were believed to have been fathered by Smith.
In 1847, Smith converted to the Mormon faith. Utah and the future site of Salt Lake City were still Mexican territories. The church issued a call for members to move west to settle in this area. Some sources state that the Mormons encouraged Smith to emancipate his slaves before the relocation but he declined to do so.
Instead, Smith along with his slaves and extended family set out for the new community in a caravan. The trek would cover 2,000 miles and take seven months. During the journey, Biddy mostly walked behind the caravan and continued performing her various responsibilities. This was done with Biddy’s youngest child, an infant, strapped to her back.
The caravan reached the new settlement at Salt Lake City but there would be several moves in the future. In 1851, Brigham Young, founder of the Mormon church decided to create a new settlement. The new community was to be established in southern California by church members. Smith was among this group and relocated his family and slaves to San Bernadino.
California had entered the Union in 1850 as a free state and thus from a legal standpoint, slavery was outlawed within its territory. Smith’s transport of his slaves into California technically automatically granted them freedom. But the Fugitive Slave Act was also enacted in 1850 and enforced the rights of slave owners even in supposedly free states. As they mingled with local Black people who knew California was a free state, those enslaved within Smith’s household began to hear murmurs about their freedom.
Initially, Smith experienced some success in California as a cattle rancher. But a disagreement with the local Mormon leaders and being a slave-owning man in an anti-slavery state made San Bernadino uncomfortable. Thus Smith relocated his group once again, this time to a desolate part of Santa Monica. From this location, Smith began to make plans to relocate to Texas which was a slave state.
Biddy and the other Black people under Smith’s control were encouraged by free Black people to seek their freedom. When Smith attempted to move the enslaved Black people into Texas, free Blacks and law enforcement got involved. Biddy’s daughter’s boyfriend appealed to his father, Robert Owens, for help. Owens alerted the Los Angeles County Sheriff and they formed a posse with other men which tracked down Smith’s caravan and forced him to remain in California. The sheriff held the enslaved people in prison to protect them from being kidnapped and forced into slave territory.
This allowed Biddy and 13 others to appeal to the courts for her freedom. While Black people were free in California, that didn’t mean they were treated as equals. Smith tried to circumvent the law by claiming Biddy and the others were his relatives, not slaves. As per the law, Biddy nor any of the other enslaved people were allowed to testify in open court. Instead, the judge, Benjamin Hayes, had them testify for him in private where they confirmed being held as slaves. After hearing the evidence, the judge sided with the petitioners and they were all granted their freedom.
As was the case with many enslaved people, Biddy did not have a last name. Following her emancipation, Biddy chose “Mason” as her surname.
At the time, LA was still a small town with a population of about 2,000 residents. LA’s Black community had provided physical protection and legal support for Mason and the other people who were enslaved by Smith. Mason and her family relocated to Los Angeles (L.A.) where her daughter married Robert Owens’ son. Mason found work as a nurse and midwife in the practice of a local White doctor, John S. Griffin.
It would take 10 years of disciplined saving and frugal living for Mason to amass $250. She used the money to purchase a plot of land between Spring Street and Broadway. This made Mason one of the first Black women to own property in the town.
The humble home that was built on the land parcel was significant for the Masons after all they’d endured. But the home also became a haven for those in need. It was the location at which Mason and other members of the Black community founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mason visited people in jail, provided a daycare for working women, helped locals with financial issues, and otherwise served her community. During her life, Mason gave and otherwise helped her family acquire property.
Over the years, Mason would continue to buy and sell local real estate. She amassed an impressive portfolio worth about $300,000 (millions of dollars in today’s money) and became one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles. Mason used her money to help her family and community, becoming a major local philanthropist. And Mason did all of this despite not having received an education.
After her death, Mason was buried in an unmarked grave until the First AME Church had a memorial stone installed in 1988. A memorial wall and Biddy Mason Park were established at Spring Street in Biddy’s honor. One of Mason’s grandsons, Robert Curry Owens, was deeded land during her lifetime and inherited other properties following her death. He became a politician and successful real estate developer and was the wealthiest Black man in Los Angeles for a while.
- “Biddy Mason.” 2020. History of American Women. May 31, 2020. https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/05/biddy-mason.html.
- “Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/people/biddymason.htm.
- Hayden, Tyler. n.d. “Biddy Mason: Her Stand for Freedom.” Natural History Museum Los Angeles County. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://nhm.org/stories/biddy-mason-her-stand-freedom.
- Kelly, Kate. 2022. “Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason, Former Slave, Landowner, and Philanthropist.” America Comes Alive. July 12, 2022. https://americacomesalive.com/bridget-biddy-mason-1818-1891-businesswoman-and-philanthropist/.
- Meares, Hadley. 2017. “Biddy Mason: One of LA’s First Black Real Estate Moguls.” Curbed LA. VOXMedia. March 1, 2017. https://la.curbed.com/2017/3/1/14756308/biddy-mason-california-black-history.
- Nmaahc. n.d. “Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.searchablemuseum.com/bridget-biddy-mason-2.
- Swatt, Steve, and Susie Swatt. n.d. “From Enslaved to Wealthy Philanthropist.” CAL@170. California State Library. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://cal170.library.ca.gov/biddy-mason-from-enslaved-to-wealthy-philanthropist/.
- Wagner, Tricia Martineau. 2023. “Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason (1818-1891).” Blackpast.Org. February 16, 2023. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mason-bridget-biddy-1818-1891/.
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