HOT ANGELENO – Happy Biddy Mason Day!

Biddy MasonIn 1989, November 16th was declared Biddy Mason Day in Los Angeles. A memorial to the African American nurse, real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist still exists at the Broadway Spring Center parking garage on Spring Street, which is the site of her former home. Her unmarked grave was finally marked with a tombstone on March 27, 1988, almost a century after her death, in a ceremony attended by Mayor Tom Bradley and nearly 3,000 members of  First American Methodist Episcopal (First A.M.E.), the church she co-founded in her living room. 

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Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born in the Deep South on August 15, 1818. She was allegedly given to Mississippi slaver Robert Smith as a wedding present, and eventually bore three daughters by him (some wedding present, eh?). Upon converting to Mormonism, Smith was encouraged by the church to free his slaves but repeatedly declined, even when asked by Brigham Young himself. He moved his entire household (around 90 people, including all slaves and children) to the Utah Territory in 1847, and then in 1851 they all joined the wagon train to San Bernardino to help Young build a new Mormon community there. YouTube Preview Image
Biddy walked the entire way to California, driving oxen behind a wagon train, but the long journey ended up changing her life one thousand percent for the better. See, her owner didn’t initially realize that the California state constitution forbade slavers. Whoops. By the time Robert Smith scrambled to do damage control by diverting everyone to Texas, it was already too late:  he had lost control. In Southern California, not only was Biddy empowered to find freedom for herself and her family, she proceeded to flourish as a respected local nurse/midwife and eventually become one of the most notable, entrepreneurial and charitable women in early Los Angeles history. She delivered hundreds of babies, became a formidable Downtown landowner in 1866, and co-founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (the first black church in Los Angeles) in her Downtown home in 1872. Biddy also fed and sheltered the poor, visited prisoners, established an elementary school for black children, and it is even said that she once ran an orphanage out of her home.  

(SOURCE) “Biddy learned through friends in the African-American Los Angeles community that California had been admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state; slavery was prohibited. But such slave owners were rarely challenged, and if they were, they rarely lost the case. In the winter of 1855, Smith decided to move once again, to Texas, a slave state. Their departure was interrupted by the Los Angeles sheriff, who served Smith a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Biddy.

“Biddy’s daughter Ellen had been dating a free black man, Charles Owens, the son of an esteemed business owner in Los Angeles’ African-American community. Charles and his friend Manuel Pepper, who was dating the daughter of another of Smith’s slaves, helped Biddy file her petition with the court for her freedom. Since California law at the time prohibited blacks, mulattos and Native Americans from testifying in court, Biddy could not speak on her own behalf, but the judge did meet with her privately to hear her story. Robert Smith did not appear in court so, on January 19 (another source says January 21), 1856, the judge granted Biddy her freedom, as well as that of her three daughters (some sources say all the other slaves of Robert Smith were freed as well).

“Biddy moved to Los Angeles, accepting the invitation to live with the Owens family. (Her daughter Ellen later married Charles.) She quickly became well regarded as a nurse and midwife, assisting in hundreds of births to mothers of all races and social classes. A couple sources say she was immediately offered a job after the trial by Dr. John S. Griffin, a Los Angeles doctor who had become interested in the case. What is certain is she soon became financially independent, saving her money and living frugally. Ten years later, in 1866, she bought a house and sizeable property on Spring Street for $250 — becoming one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. She instructed her children to never abandon it.

“In 1884, Biddy sold a parcel of the land for $1500 and built a commercial building with rental spaces on the remaining land. The area ultimately became the central commercial district of Los Angeles. Through continued wise business and real estate decisions, she acquired many parcels of land that, as the town developed, became prime urban lots — and she accumulated a fortune of almost $300,000. Her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, a real estate developer and politician, was the wealthiest African-American in Los Angeles at one time.”

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5 Responses to “HOT ANGELENO – Happy Biddy Mason Day!”

  1. Cindy Kelly says:

    This woman knew we are all the image of the creator. How often we people allow ourselves to forget. Wonderful story.

  2. Cindy Kelly says:

    Beautiful woman and story.

  3. I love this story and it shows how powerful the spirit of any woman/man can be.

  4. James Burks says:

    The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs is working with several community organizations and individuals to plan a tribute to Bridget “Biddy” Mason and seek suggestions and ideas to celebrate her life and contribution to Los Angeles.

  5. Siria Silva says:

    Beautiful story. I grew up in LA and don’t remember hearing or learning about this beautiful lady. Be nice to include people like Bridget Mason and other great people that made a difference in LA history, in our school education.

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