In 1866, a 48-year-old woman named “Biddy” Mason purchased two lots land for $250 on Spring Street (said to be somewhere between Fourth and Fifth Streets) in what would later become Downtown Los Angeles. At the time, this was the edge of town and even considered rural. It was Mason’s first real estate purchase from money she had carefully saved from more than six years working as a nurse and midwife. What made the transaction so unique for Los Angeles was that she was African American and had even endured being a slave for most of her life except the six years prior. From that first purchase, she went on, over the next 25 years, to become one of the wealthiest African Americans west of the Mississippi River and a leading philanthropic citizen in Los Angeles.
Born in Georgia on August 15, 1818, Bridget (she had no surname) was given as a wedding gift to Robert Smith and his bride. The Smith household thereafter moved with their slaves to Mississippi where they were later converted to become Mormons. The Smith’s slaves were not freed and not baptized into the Mormon faith.
The Smith household moved westward from Mississippi through Illinois, Colorado, finally settling in the Utah Territory. In 1851, they joined a group of other Mormon families to establish the San Bernardino colony in California. Among her other tasks, Bridget served as a shepherdess for the wagon caravan to California, herding flocks of sheep and children across plains, mountains and desert through dust kicked up by the long train of wagons.
California was a “free state” and people could not legally be held as slaves here. Yet Smith continued to maintain his southern plantation way of life and found himself increasingly at odds with fellow colonists. Nor was his own church favorably disposed toward the practice of slavery. In 1855, with his sickly wife by then deceased, Smith decided to give up on the San Bernardino colony and move his household and slaves, Bridget and daughters included, to Texas, a slave state. Smith tried persuading them that they would be freed in Texas, because he needed their cooperation to get there and still considered them valuable property. Bridget and her fellow slaves did not fully trust him and feared they would be sold and separated from their children. Before Smith’s party could head east to Texas, however, he had to stop in Los Angeles to obtain supplies for the trip. They did not stay long in Los Angeles, whereafter Smith led them out of town to camp in what is now Santa Monica. A freed slave named Lizzy Flake Rowan, who knew Bridget from San Bernardino, alerted Los Angeles County Sheriff Frank Dewitt that Smith was forcibly moving these people to a slave state against their will, a violation of California law. The sheriff and his posse intercepted the party, served Smith with a habeas corpus and took Bridget and the others into protective custody.
Bridget was safely in Los Angeles, but she had to watch as Smith tried, by whatever dishonest means, to fight in court against any dispossession of his “property.” Southern California Judge Benjamin Ignatius Hayes presided over the inquiry and heard Smith argue that Bridget and his slaves wished to go to Texas with him. Smith bribed and apparently even threatened the attorney representing Bridget and her companions. Bridget couldn’t even testify directly against Smith because of a prohibition against African Americans testifying against white persons. The court hearings became a huge event in the then small town of Los Angeles. Judge Hayes heard for himself that Bridget and her fellow slaves, although not complaining of poor treatment by Smith, wanted their freedom. The judge ruled that she, her daughters Ellen, Ann, and Harriet and 10 others enslaved by Smith were free and free to remain in California. The full text of his ruling was printed in the Los Angeles Star newspaper on February 2, 1856.
Now free, but without a surname, Bridget chose to adopt the middle name of Mormon apostle and leader Amasa Mason Lyman (and first mayor of San Bernardino). Biddy apparently had been close to and fond of the Lyman family.
To make a living, Mason went to work as a nurse and midwife. She found work with Los Angeles physicians, including Dr. John Strother Griffin, who may, being an astute investor, have advised her on real estate investing. Mason was careful to save her money, giving her opportunity, a little more than six years after her emancipation, to purchase her first property on Spring Street. Her good financial sense continued to help her and her daughters become quite wealthy (amassing a fortune that would be valued at almost $6 million today). They found themselves owners of prime real estate in a rapidly growing town. Mason did not keep her heart and good fortune to herself, though. She generously reached out to help the poor and those suffering adversity. She visited prisoners. She opened the first child care center in Los Angeles. She was affectionately called as “Grandma Mason” or “Auntie Mason.” When the Los Angeles River flooded and destroyed nearby homes, Mason opened her charge account at the Third Street Grocery to all left homeless and needing help, regardless of their skin color. She helped found an elementary school for African American children and, in 1872, opened her home at 331 Spring Street be used to establish and organize First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the first African American church in Los Angeles. The permanent church was eventually erected on land she donated at Eighth and Towne.
Mason had become a fluent Spanish-speaker and was well received in the Los Angeles Spanish-speaking community. She had befriended Pio Pico, Mexico’s last governor in California, Pio Pico.
After her death on January 15, 1891, Mason was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. It wasn’t until 97 years later, on March 27, 1988, that her gravesite received a tombstone to honor her. At this ceremony was Los Angeles’ first African American mayor, Tom Bradley, and members of Mason’s beloved First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mason is further commemorated in Downtown Los Angeles by artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s "Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time.” Installed in 1989, the commemorative wall, located (Broadway and Third, behind the Bradbury Building) near where Mason’s home once stood, portrays events from her life and L.A.’s past.
Portion of the commemorative wall "Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time” by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. The black concrete wall, portraying the story of Mason's life, is 81 feet long and eight feet high. It was installed in 1989. It is located at 331 South Spring Street in Downtown Los Angeles (at Broadway and Third, behind the Bradbury Building). Los Angeles Almanac photo.
From Enslaved to Entrepreneur: The Biddy Mason Story
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was brought to California as a slave, but, having learned of her legal rights, fought in court and won her freedom and that of her family. She went on to become one of the wealthiest and most philanthropic people in Los Angeles.