Biddy Mason: From [Enslaved] to Entrepreneur
On August 15, 1818, Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born in Mississippi. Once an illiterate African-American slave who worked as a nurse/midwife, she walked from Mississippi to California to become a successful entrepreneur and a generous contributor to social causes.
Mason was born on a plantation owned by Robert Marion Smith and Rebecca (Crosby) Smith. In 1847, Smith became a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and decided to move with his household and slaves to the Utah Territory, where Brigham Young was starting a Mormon community. In this strenuous 2,000-mile cross-country trek, Mason was responsible for herding the cattle. She also prepared meals, acted as a midwife, and took care of her own children. In 1851, Smith moved his household again, this time to San Bernardino, California.
At this time Mason had made friends in the Los Angeles Black community, and one of them (Charles Owens) helped Mason petition the court; in 1856, she won freedom for herself and for her daughters, and she moved to Los Angeles and found employment as a nurse and midwife. Hard work and her nursing skills allowed her to become economically independent. She became a domestic to Dr. John S. Griffin, who served most of the Los Angeles area. Mason was also very frugal, and only ten years after gaining her freedom, she bought a site on Spring Street for $250, becoming one of the first Black women to own land in Los Angeles. This site is now in the center of the commercial district in the heart of the city.
In 1884, Mason sold a parcel of the land for $1,500 and built a commercial building with spaces for rental on the remaining land. She continued making wise decisions in her business and real estate transactions. and her financial fortunes continued to increase until she accumulated a fortune of almost $300,000. Her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, a real estate developer and politician, was at one time the richest African-American in Los Angeles.
Mason was a founding member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872. She also gave generously to various charities and provided food and shelter for the poor of all races; in addition, she never forgot the jail inmates that she visited often. In 1872 she 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 Los Angeles.
Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen cemetery in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. Nearly a century later, on March 27, 1988, a tombstone that marked her grave for the first time was unveiled in a ceremony attended by Mayor Tom Bradley and approximately 3,000 members of the First African Methodist Episcopal church.
Thursday, November 16, 1989, was declared Biddy Mason Day, and a memorial of her achievements was unveiled at the Broadway Spring Center located between Spring Street and Broadway at Third Street in Los Angeles.