Biddy Mason

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Biddy Mason
Biddy Mason (00026783).jpg
Born(1818-08-15)August 15, 1818
DiedJanuary 15, 1891(1891-01-15) (aged 72)
OccupationMid-wife, California real estate entrepreneur, nurse, philanthropist
Known forPhilanthropy, Founding the Los Angeles First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, California real-estate entrepreneur
Biddy Mason Park
Location333 Spring Street
Los Angeles, California
Coordinates34°3′0″N 118°14′53″W / 34.05000°N 118.24806°W / 34.05000; -118.24806

Biddy Mason (August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891) was an African-American nurse and a Californian real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She was one of the founders of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, California. Enslaved upon birth, she developed a variety of skills and developed knowledge of medicine, child care, and livestock care. A California court granted her and her daughters freedom in 1856.

Early life[edit]

Biddy Mason was born into slavery reportedly on August 15, 1818 in Hancock County, Georgia, but her exact birthplace and birthdate are unknown. [1][2][3] At an early age, she was taken from her parents and moved to the plantation of another slave owner.[citation needed] Although records during her youth are incomplete, she spent most of her time on a plantation owned by Robert Smithson.[4]: 18[citation needed]

During her teenage years, she learned domestic and agricultural skills. Additionally, she developed skills in herbal medicine and midwifery taught to her by other female slaves.[citation needed] These skills were passed down from African, Caribbean, and Native American traditions.[citation needed] Her knowledge benefited both the slaves and the plantation owners.[5]: 30–33[4]: 19–21 According to some authors, Biddy was either given to or sold to Robert Mays Smith and his bride Rebecca Dorn Smith in the 1840s.[6][4]: 20 Biddy was valuable to the Smiths because of her knowledge of medicine, child care, and livestock care.[4]: 21

Biddy had three children: Ellen born in about 1838, Ann born in about 1844, and Harriet born in about 1847.[citation needed] The fathers of her children are unknown, but some authors have speculated that Robert M. Smith likely fathered at least one of her children.[4]: 21[citation needed] A 25-year-old slave named Hannah worked with Biddy on the plantation; like Biddy, Hannah had three of her own children.[4]: 22[citation needed]

Relocations in 1847 and 1851[edit]

Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) proselytized in Mississippi. They taught Smith, his wife, and six children and they converted in 1847.[6] Slaves were only allowed to be preached to and baptized with their master's permission, according to church policy.[7] It is unknown whether Biddy was baptized.[8]

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.[9] During the journey west, Biddy herded livestock, prepared meals, and midwifed while caring for her own children.[1][5][6] They later joined the main body of Mormons crossing the plains, and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory in 1848.[8] Thirty-four slaves came with their masters to the Utah Territory. The slaves built log cabins, cleared fields, and planted in the town of Cottonwood, in the Salt Lake Valley.[10]

Drawing of San Bernardino, 1852, where she was illegally held captive in a Mormon settlement

Church leader Brigham Young sent a group of Mormons to Southern California in 1851. Young instructed the group that California was a free state, and their slaves would be free when they arrived in California.[8] Robert Smith, his family, and his enslaved people settled in San Bernardino, California. Biddy was among a number of enslaved people in the San Bernardino settlement.[11] As part of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state. Nevertheless, some migrants from the South, including Robert Smith, continued to bring enslaved people into the state.[12] California's courts routinely ruled in favor of these slaveholders and against the freedom claims of African Americans.[13] Biddy was under the control of Robert Smith and ignorant of the laws and her rights.[14][15]


In 1856, Smith decided to move to the slave state of Texas and sell his slaves there.[16] He told his slaves that they would be free in Texas.[14] Biddy relayed her fears of being separated from her children and remaining a slave to two free black men: Charles Owens and Manuel Pepper. The men, including sheriffs and others, served Smith with a court order.[6] A Los Angeles court heard the habeas corpus action regarding her freedom.[13] Smith claimed that Biddy wanted to go to Texas.[17] He then bribed her lawyer to not show up.[14] She was not allowed to testify in court, since California law prohibited black people from testifying against white people. After Smith failed to appear in court on January 21, 1856, the judge presiding over the case, Benjamin Ignatius Hayes, freed Biddy and her family members.[6] In 1860, Mason received a certified copy of the document that guaranteed her freedom.[18] Biddy had no legal last name when she was enslaved.[19]: 9

Los Angeles[edit]

After becoming free, Mason and her daughters moved in with Robert Owens, the father of Charles Owens and a well-known Los Angeles businessman.[6] Her daughter Ellen would eventually marry Charles Owens.[5] Mason worked in Los Angeles as a nurse and midwife, delivering hundreds of babies during her career. Using her knowledge of herbal remedies, she risked her life to care for those affected by the smallpox epidemic in Los Angeles.[5] One of her employers was the noted physician John Strother Griffin.[20] Saving carefully, she was one of the first African American women to own land in Los Angeles.[5] As a businesswoman, she amassed a relatively large fortune, which she shared generously with charities. Mason also fed and sheltered the poor, and visited prisoners.[5] She was instrumental in founding a traveler's aid center, and a school and day care center for black children, open to any child who had nowhere else to go.[19][21] Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her "Auntie Mason" or "Grandma Mason."[5][citation needed]

In 1872, along with her son-in-law Charles Owens and other Black residents of Los Angeles, Mason was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the city's first Black church.[5][6] The organizing meetings were held in her home on Spring Street.[4]: 89, 104 She donated the land on which the church was built.[22][23] She also helped to establish the first elementary school for black children in Los Angeles.[5][citation needed]

Mason spoke fluent Spanish and was a well-known figure in the city.[citation needed] She dined on occasion at the home of Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California and a wealthy Los Angeles land owner.[24]


Mason's daughter Ellen married Charles Owens and had two sons Robert Curry Owens (1859-1932) and Henry Louis Owens (1861-1893).[25] For many decades, Robert Curry Owens was noted as the wealthiest Black man in Los Angeles.[26][25] Henry L. Owens died in 1893.[26] Later in life, Robert Curry Owens engaged in politics and real estate. He went on to own the Owens Block, a two-story brick building built on Broadway in the early 1890s that became the first Black-owned business building in Downtown Los Angeles.[26][citation needed]


Mason was fond of saying,

"If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives."[27]

After Mason's death on January 15, 1891, she was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights. On March 27, 1988, in a ceremony attended by the mayor of Los Angeles and members of the church she founded, her burial place was marked with a gravestone.[28]

Mason is an honoree in the California Social Work Hall of Distinction. She was also celebrated on Biddy Mason Day on November 16, 1989. A ceremony at the Broadway Spring Center unveiled a memorial to highlight her achievements.[29][6]

Biddy Mason Park is near the site of Mason's home. It is a downtown Los Angeles city park and site of an art installation describing her life.[22][23] Artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's designed an installation called is Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time,[30][31]. It is an 82-foot-long (25 m) concrete wall with embedded objects that tell the story of Mason's life.[32][20][33][34]

Mason is featured in a mural by Bernard Zakheim in UC Hall at the University of California, San Francisco. The painting, dating to the 1930s, is currently facing demolition along with the rest of the building as part of a campus upgrade.[35]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Beasley, Delilah L. (1919). The Negro Trail Blazers of California. p. 88-90, 109-111.
  2. ^ Demaratus, DeEtta (2002). The Force of a Feather: The Search for a Lost Story of Slavery and Freedom. University of Utah Press. ISBN 978-0874807141. Retrieved July 15, 2021.
  3. ^ Hayden, Dolores (1995). The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. MIT Press. p. 274. ISBN 978-0262581523. Retrieved May 5, 2014. 1860 Census lists Mississippi, but 1870 & 1880 list Georgia as well as her LA Times obituary
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Williams, Jean Kinney (2006). Bridget "Biddy" Mason: From Slave to Businesswoman. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books. p. 9. ISBN 978-0756510015. Retrieved November 6, 2018. Bridget Biddy Mason.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Harris, Gloria G.; Cohen, Hannah S. (2012). "Chapter 2. Settlers – Bridget 'Biddy' Mason: From Slave to Humanitarian". Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 26–43 [30–33]. ISBN 978-1609496753.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Sims, Oscar L. (1993). "Biddy Mason". In Smith, Jessie Carney (ed.). Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press. pp. 369–372. ISBN 978-0810394261.
  7. ^ Reeve, W. Paul (2015). Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormons Struggle for Whiteness. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0199754076. Retrieved November 6, 2018.
  8. ^ a b c "Biddy Mason". Pioneer Database, 1847-1868. Church History, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved July 15, 2021.Hull, LeAnne von Neumeyer (March 24, 2006), "Bridget Biddy Smith Mason: Her Legacy Among the Mormons", Black Voice News, Brown Publishing Company, archived from the original on August 8, 2014
  9. ^ "The Forgotten Pioneers". Part In Norma B. Ricketts, Crossroads, Vol. 8, No. 2 & 3 (Spring/Summer 1997).
  10. ^ Tucker, T. Michelle (2021). American Angels of the Old West. Lehi, Utah: Rose of Sharon Publishing. pp. 51–52. ISBN 9798640518160.
  11. ^ "The Latter-Day Saints' Millennial Star, Volume 17". 1855. p. 63. Most of those who take slaves there pass over with them in a little while to San Bernardino... How many slaves are now held there they could not say, but the number relatively was by no means small. A single person had taken between forty and fifty, and many had gone in with smaller numbers.
  12. ^ Waite, Kevin (2021). West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  13. ^ a b Smith, Stacey L. (2015). Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 139–31, 134–35. Retrieved July 15, 2021.
  14. ^ a b c Gavin, Camille (2007). Biddy Mason: A Place of Her Own. America Star Books. ISBN 978-1632491909.
  15. ^ Hayes, Benjamin (January 24, 2007). "Mason v. Smith". none of the said persons of color can read and write, and are almost entirely ignorant of the laws of the state of California as well as those of the State of Texas, and of their rights
  16. ^ Tarr, Jeremy (March 23, 2019). "10 Incredible, Insane, and Mostly True Stories About Downtown Los Angeles". Fodors Travel Guide. Retrieved March 25, 2019.
  17. ^ Newton, Honey M. Zion's Hope: Pioneer Midwives and Women Doctors in Utah. ISBN 978-1462103430.
  18. ^ Reiter, Joan S. (1978), The Old West: The Women, p. 213. Time-Life Books.
  19. ^ a b Ferris, Jeri Chase (1999). With Open Hands: A Story about Biddy Mason. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-1575053301. Retrieved November 6, 2018.
  20. ^ a b Hayden, Dolores (Fall 1989). "Biddy Mason's Los Angeles 1856–1891". California History. 68 (3): 86–99. doi:10.2307/25462395. JSTOR 25462395.
  21. ^ Snodgrass, Mary Ellen (2015). The Civil War Era and Reconstruction: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. London and New York: Routledge. p. 452. ISBN 978-0765682574. Retrieved November 6, 2018.
  22. ^ a b "Biddy Mason Park – Downtown Los Angeles Walking Tour". University of Southern California. Retrieved April 16, 2014.
  23. ^ a b "Biddy Mason Park – the city project". UCLA – Remapping-LA. Archived from the original on April 16, 2014. Retrieved April 16, 2014.
  24. ^ "African-Americans and the Early Pueblo of Los Angeles". City of Los Angeles. 2011. Archived from the original on April 4, 2013. Retrieved April 16, 2014.
  25. ^ a b Jefferson, Alison Rose (February 5, 2019). "Pioneering Black Urbanites in San Francisco and Los Angeles". California Historical Society. Retrieved March 10, 2020.
  26. ^ a b c "Finding Aid for the Miriam Matthews Photograph collection, 1781–1989". Retrieved March 10, 2020.
  27. ^ Weiler, Nicholas (September 28, 2020). "The Open Hand: A Conversation with the Descendants of Biddy Mason". UCSF Campus News. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  28. ^ Greenstein, Albert (1999). "Bridget "Biddy" Mason". The Historical Society of Southern California. Archived from the original on March 3, 2014. Retrieved July 18, 2017.
  29. ^ "From Slavery to Entrepreneur, Biddy Mason". African American Registry. Archived from the original on May 6, 2014. Retrieved May 5, 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.
  30. ^ "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". Retrieved August 17, 2013.
  31. ^ Lupton, Ellen. "Sheila Levrant de Bretteville". AIGA. AIGA. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  32. ^ "Brooklyn Museum on Biddy Mason: Time & Place".
  33. ^ Schrank, Sarah. "Los Angeles Public Art: Downtown to Watts". Public Art Dialogue. Public Art Dialogue. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  34. ^ Livingston, Michael (August 18, 2018). "Honoring the legacy and 200th birthday of slave-turned-entrepreneur Biddy Mason". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 29, 2019.
  35. ^ "Op-Ed: A monument to California's Black history may soon be destroyed". Los Angeles Times. July 10, 2020. Retrieved July 10, 2020.

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