Bridget “Biddy” Mason was an African-American nurse, real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She was able to support her extended family for generations due to her financial success.
Mason was born into slavery in 1818 in Mississippi. She was named Bridget and given no last name. Mason was owned by slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina before she was returned to Mississippi. Her last owner was Robert Marion Smith, a Mississippi Mormon convert. Mormons were encouraged to free their slaves, but he chose not to. In 1848, Smith was part of the religious pilgrimage of Mormons to what would become Salt Lake City, Utah (then part of Mexico). Mason was tasked with herding the cattle, preparing meals, acting as a midwife, and taking care of her own children on the 2,000 mile trek across the country. In 1851, Smith set out again, this time for San Bernardino, California to establish another Mormon community. Mason discovered that California was a free state, following its admittance to the Union in 1850. Slavery was prohibited, but slave owners were rarely challenged.
In 1855, Smith attempted to move to Texas, a slave state after the Los Angeles County Sheriff discovered that he was keeping slaves illegally. Mason’s daughter, Ellen had been dating Charles Owens, a free black man whose father, Robert Owens was a well respected businessman. Owens had notified the Los Angeles County Sheriff about Smith and together the Owens family assisted the sheriff in apprehending Smith’s as his wagon attempted to pass through Cajon Pass, California. The Owens family then assisted Mason in petitioning for her freedom in the courts. In 1956, Mason and her family were granted their freedom.
Mason had no legal last name when freed, and chose Mason after a Mormon apostle. Her family moved to Los Angeles and Ellen married Charles Owens. Mason worked hard as a midwife and nurse and gained the respect of those she assisted. She saved her money, and in 1866 she spent $250 purchasing land and a house on Spring Street, now part of downtown Los Angeles. She became one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. In 1884, Mason sold part of her land for $1,500 and built a commercial building on her remaining land. She then rented office space, and steadily built up a real estate portfolio that amassed her a fortune of nearly $300,000. Mason used her money to support various charities, feed and shelter the poor and found a traveler’s aid centre and an elementary school for black children. She also visited prison inmates and supplied them with gifts and aid. She became known as “Auntie Mason” or “Grandma Mason” and needy people would line up in front of her house on Spring Street. It is possible that she also ran an orphanage from her own home.
In 1872, Mason and Charles Owens founded and financed the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (First A.M.E), the first black church in Los Angeles. The meetings to organise the church were held at her home on Spring Street, and she donated the land for the church to be built upon. The church is now located at 2270 South Harvard Street, and the former site at 8th and Towne site is now the Biddy Mason Park which is home to an art installation telling her story. Mason was a philanthropist to the entire Los Angeles community, and because of her many children were able to have access to an education. Mason died in 1891 at the age of 73. She was originally buried in an unmarked grave and it was not until a century later that she was given the respect she deserved when a tombstone was erected on her grave. The ceremony in 1988 was attended by around 3,000 First A.M.E church members as well as Mayor Tom Bradley.