When people think of women slaves, landowner isn’t one of the terms that comes to mind. When Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into the harsh reality of slavery in 1818, nothing about the future indicated there was a life beyond slavery.
Most accounts say she was born in Mississippi, and sold to slave owners in Georgia and South Carolina before being given as a wedding gift to Robert M. Smith as his bride and returning to Mississippi. There was no way to know that the “gift” of Biddy Mason would create generations of wealthy black Americans who would help build Los Angeles.
Bridget Mason spent most of her time caring for Smith’s chronically ill wife and became a highly skilled nurse and midwife. By the time Smith converted to Mormonism and decided to make a religious pilgrimage to the Utah territory, Biddy Mason was 30 years old and the mother of three girls, ages ten, four and an infant.
The trek to Utah began in 1848 and took nearly two years and 2000 miles. In between walking thousands of miles and taking care of her own children, Mason served as nurse maid, midwife and livestock herder (some reports say cattle, others say sheep). In 1851, Smith decided to move his family to California to establish another Mormon community, arriving in San Bernardino with Mason and the rest of his slaves later that year – a move that would put Mason on a path unimaginable for a woman in her circumstance.
San Bernardino had a large black population due to the migration of freed slaves to the area. California had banned slavery in its 1849 constitution and had joined the union in 1850 as a free state. It was also around this time that the Mormon Church took on an anti-slavery stance, with church leader Brigham Young urging members to free their slaves.
Through other former slaves in the community, Mason, who could not read or write, learned that slavery was illegal in the state and asked Smith to free her, which he refused. Fearing that the laws of the state and the Civil War would mean having to free his slaves, in December 1855 Smith decided to move to Texas which was still a slave state.
Mason was desperate and feared never being able to escape life as a slave. She confided in friends in the community about Smith’s plans. One contacted a wealthy and powerful black businessman in Los Angeles. He alerted the Los Angeles County Sheriff who, along with a group of other men, found Smith’s caravan that had set up an encampment in the Santa Monica Mountains on their way out of the state. They prevented Smith from leaving the state.
In January 1856, Mason challenged Smith for her freedom, as well as on behalf of 13 other adults and children that were enslaved by him. During the trial, Robert Smith claimed that his slaves knew they were free and had remained of their own free will. The judge ruled that none of them could read or write and Smith had complete control, dismissing the idea that they lived or acted as free persons. Smith was accused of illegally detaining free persons and trying to return them to slavery. The judge granted their freedom and ordered Smith to pay all the related costs for the court proceedings.
Gainful employment and frugality allowed her to save up enough money to buy a plot of land on Spring Street (in what is now downtown Los Angeles) for $250 dollars in 1866, the first black woman to purchase land in the city. She would not live on the land for another several years, choosing to save funds to build on what would be the family homestead. In 1875, she sold a portion of the lot for $1,500 and built a commercial building and rental spaces on the remaining land that would become part of a booming area of black business.
Her real estate dealings helped her amass a fortune of more than $300,000, the majority of which she used for philanthropic efforts in the Los Angeles community, as well as supporting the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which she co-founded. First AME, which continues today, was L.A.’s first black church and began in Biddy’s home on the Spring Street property. Today a memorial of her achievements can be found near the first plot of land she bought, now the center of downtown Los Angeles’ commercial district.
Biddy Mason never learned to read or write, signing all of her transactions with an “x.” However, she knew to ask for receipts and the deed for each property she owned. By the time of her death in 1891, she reportedly owned several valuable properties all over downtown Los Angeles. Her influence did not end with her death, however. Her legacy would continue through generations, including to a man who would be named the most influential black man in California.
Photo Credit: African-American Registry