Biddy Mason was born a slave on August 15, 1818 probably in Georgia but it may have been in Mississippi, and given the name of "Bridget" with no surname. She was given to Robert Smith and his bride as a wedding present. After the marriage, Smith took his new wife and slaves to Mississippi.
Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) proselytized in Mississippi. They taught Smith and his wealthy family and they converted. Slaves were not baptized in the church as a matter of policy. Members were encouraged to free their slaves, but Smith chose not to do so.
The Smith household joined a group of other church members from Mississippi to meet the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1847. The group traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, and joined up with the sick detachment from the Mormon Battalion. They later joined the main body of Mormons crossing the plains and settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory.
Church leader Brigham Young sent a group of Mormons to Southern California in 1851. Robert Smith, family and slaves joined them in San Bernardino, California, sometime later. Young counseled Smith again to free Bridget and his other slaves before going to California. Bridget was among a small group of blacks, free and slave, in the San Bernardino settlement.
In 1856, Robert Smith, Mason's owner, planned to move to the slave state of Texas. As part of the Compromise of 1850, California was a free state and any slave brought into the state was free. However, Smith had refused Church leaders' counsel to set his slaves free and maintained that Bridget and her children were his property. He planned to take them with him overland to Texas.
Bridget, helped by friends, attempted to escape from Smith. She and a group of Smith's other slaves traveled towards Los Angeles before Smith caught up with them. A local posse caught up with Smith before he could leave the state.
Bridget petitioned a Los Angeles court for her freedom. A California judge, Benjamin Ignatius Hayes, granted her freedom as a resident of a free state, as well as the freedom of the other slaves held captive by Smith (Bridget's three daughters,Ellen,Ann,and Harriet and ten other African-American women and children). In 1860, Mason received a certified copy of the document that guaranteed her freedom.
Bridget had no legal last name as a slave. After emancipation, she chose to be known as Bridget Biddy. Mason was the middle name of Amasa Lyman, Mormon Apostle and mayor of San Bernardino. Biddy had spent many years in the company of the Amasa Lyman household.
After becoming free, Mason worked in Los Angeles as a nurse and midwife. One of her employers was the noted physician John Strother Griffin. Saving carefully, she was one of the first African Americans to purchase land in the city. As a businesswoman she amassed a relatively large fortune of nearly $300,000, which she shared generously with charities. Biddy also fed and sheltered the poor, and visited prisoners. She was instrumental in founding a traveler's aid center, and an elementary school for black children. Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her "Auntie Mason" or "Grandma Mason".
In 1872, Mason was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city's first black church. The organizing meetings were held in her home on Spring Street. She donated the land on which the church was built. This land is now the site of Biddy Mason Park, a Los Angeles city park and site of an art installation describing her life.
Death and posthumous honors
After her death on January 15, 1891, Mason was buried in an unmarked grave in Boyle Heights. On March 27, 1988, in a ceremony attended by the mayor of Los Angeles and members of the church she founded, the grave was marked with a tombstone.
One of artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's best-known pieces is "Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time,” an 82-foot concrete wall with embedded objects in downtown Los Angeles (near where Mason lived) that tells the story of Mason's life.
- Hayden, Dolores (1995). The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. MIT Press. p. 274. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
1860 Census lists Mississippi, but 1870 & 1880 list Georgia as well as her LA Times obituary
- "The Forgotten Pioneers". Part In Norma B. Ricketts, Crossroads, Vol. 8, No. 2 & 3 (Spring/Summer 1997).
- Mason v. Smith. "The Bridget 'Biddy' Mason Case" (1856).
- Reiter, Joan S. (1978), The Old West: The Women, p. 213. Time-Life Books.
- "Biddy Mason Park - Downtown Los Angeles Walking Tour". University of Southern California. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
- "Biddy Mason Park - the city project". UCLA - Remapping-LA. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
- "African-Americans and the Early Pueblo of Los Angeles". City of Los Angeles. 2011. Archived from the original on 2013-04-04. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
- Greenstein, Albert (1999). "Bridget "Biddy" Mason". The Historical Society of Southern California. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
- "From Slavery to Entrepreneur, Biddy Mason". African American Registry. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
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.
- "Betye Saar, "Biddy Mason: A Passage of Time" and "Biddy Mason: House of the Open Hand"; Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, "Biddy Mason: Time and Place", Los Angeles". Publicartinla.com. Retrieved 2013-08-17.
- "Brooklyn Museum on Biddy Mason: Time & Place".
- Bolden, Tonya. (1996). The Book of African-American Women: 150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters, Adams Media Corporation
- Mungen, Donna. (1976). The Life and Times of Biddy Mason
- Reiter, Joan S. (1978). The Old West: The Women. Time-Life Books.
- Sherr, Lynn and Jurate Kazickas. (1994). Susan B. Anthony Slept Here. A Guide to American Women's Landmarks, Random House.
- Sims, Oscar L. "Profile of Biddy Mason." (1993). Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference, Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Visible Ink Press
- Cohen, Hannah S. Harris, Gloria G. Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present
- Hull, LeAnne von Neumeyer (24 March 2006), "Bridget Biddy Smith Mason: Her Legacy Among the Mormons", Black Voice News (Brown Publishing Company)
- A History of Black Americans in California: Biddy Mason
- bio in California Social Work Hall of Distinction
- Biography at DistinguishedWomen.com