From slavery to entrepreneur, Biddy Mason
*On this date in 1818, Bridget "Biddy" Mason was born. She was a once illiterate Black slave woman who worked as a nurse/midwife and then walked from Mississippi to California to become a successful entrepreneur and a generous contributor to social causes.
From Mississippi, she was born on a plantation owned by Robert Marion Smith and Rebbecca (Crosby) Smith. In 1847, Smith became a Mormon convert and decided to move to the Utah Territory with his household and slaves where Brigham Young was starting a Mormon community. In this strenuous two-thousand-mile cross-country trek, Mason was responsible for herding the cattle. She also prepared meals, acted as a midwife and took care of her children. In 1851, Smith moved his household again, this time to San Bernardino, California. Smith probably did not know that California had been admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state and that slavery was forbidden there.
At this time she had made friends in the L. A. black community and one of them (Charles Owens) helped Mason petition the court and in 1856 won freedom for herself and for her daughters. 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, she sold a parcel of the land for $1500 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 the richest African-American in Los Angeles at one time.
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 and she never forgot the jail inmates whom 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, L. A.'s first black church. 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 was unveiled which marked her grave for the first time in a ceremony attended by Mayor Tom Bradley and about three thousand 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.
Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Oscar L. Sims
Visible Ink Press, 1993.
Today in American History