Biddy Mason

Biddy Mason (August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891) was an African-American nurse and a Californian real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She is the founder 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. In California, she successfully petitioned a court for her freedom.

Bridget "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

Early lifeEdit

Bridget "Biddy" Mason was born into slavery on August 15, 1818. Her exact birthplace is unknown. Different sources cite either Hancock County, Mississippi or Hancock County, Georgia as her birthplace.[1] At an early age, she was taken from her parents and moved to the plantation of another slave owner. Although records during her youth are incomplete, she spent most of her time on a plantation owned by Robert Smithson.[2]:18

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. These skills were passed down from African, Caribbean, and Native American traditions. Her knowledge benefited both the slaves and the plantation owners.[3]:30–33[2]:19–21 Biddy was either given to or sold to Robert Mayes Smith and his bride Rebecca Dorn Smith in the 1840s. According to some stories, she was given to the Smiths as a wedding present, but records are not clear as to why she moved to the Smiths' Mississippi plantation.[4][2]:20 Biddy was valuable to the Smiths because of her knowledge of medicine, child care, and livestock care.[2]:21

While on the Smiths' plantation, Biddy had three children: Ellen in 1838, Ann in 1844, and Harriet in 1847. The father (or fathers) of her children are unknown, but some historians believe Robert Smith likely fathered at least one of her children.[2]:21 A 25-year-old slave named Hannah worked with Biddy on the plantation; like Biddy, Hannah had three of her own children.[2]:22

Relocations in 1847 and 1851Edit

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.[4] Slaves were only allowed to be preached to and baptized with their master's permission, according to church policy.[5] It is unknown whether Biddy was baptized.[6]

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.[7] During the journey west, Biddy was valuable to the wagon company. She organized travelers, herded cattle, prepared meals, and midwifed while caring for her own children.[3][4] They later joined the main body of Mormons crossing the plains, and settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory.[6] Thirty-four slaves came with their masters to the Utah Territory. The slaves built log cabins, clearned fields, and planter in the town of Cottonwood, in the Salt Lake Valley.[8]

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. Smith ignored Young, and chose not to free Biddy or Hannah.[6] Robert Smith, his family, and his slaves joined them in San Bernardino, California, sometime later. Biddy was among a large group of slaves in the San Bernardino settlement.[9] As part of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state, and any slave who resided in the state or was born in the state was free. Biddy had lived in California for four years, and some of the other slaves had been born in California, so they were covered by the law.[10] Biddy wanted to be free,[10] but was under the control of Robert Smith, and ignorant of the laws and her rights.[11]


In 1856, Smith decided to move to the slave state of Texas and sell his slaves there.[12] He told his slaves that they would be free in Texas, but Biddy did not believe him.[10] Biddy relayed her fears of being separated from her children and remaining a slave to two free black men: Charles Owens and Manuel Pepper. Due to the romantic relationships they had with two of Biddy and Hannah's daughters, they were determined to help Biddy stay in California. The men, including sheriffs and others, invaded Smith's hideout in the Santa Monica Mountains and served him a court order.[4] Biddy petitioned a Los Angeles court for her freedom in Mason v. Smith, 1856 in three days of hearings for Biddy Mason and her daughters.[13] Smith claimed that Biddy was her family and she wanted to go to Texas.[14] He then bribed her lawyer to not show up.[10] 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.[4] In 1860, Mason received a certified copy of the document that guaranteed her freedom.[15] Biddy had no legal last name when she was enslaved.[16]:9

Los AngelesEdit

After becoming free, Mason and her daughters moved in with Robert Owens, the father of Charles Owens and a well-known Los Angeles businessman.[4] Her daughter Ellen would eventually marry Charles Owens.[3] 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.[3] One of her employers was the noted physician John Strother Griffin.[17] Saving carefully, she was one of the first African American women to own land in Los Angeles.[3] As a businesswoman, she amassed a relatively large fortune of nearly $300,000, which she shared generously with charities. Mason also fed and sheltered the poor, and visited prisoners.[3] 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.[16][18] Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her "Auntie Mason" or "Grandma Mason."[3]

In 1872, along with her son-in-law Charles Owens, Mason was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the city's first black church.[3][4] The organizing meetings were held in her home on Spring Street.[2]:89, 104 She donated the land on which the church was built.[19][20] She also helped to establish the first elementary school for black children in Los Angeles.[3]

Mason spoke fluent Spanish and was a well-known figure in the city. She dined on occasion at the home of Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California and a wealthy Los Angeles land owner.[21]


Mason's daughter Ellen Mason Owens married Charles Owens and had two sons Robert Curry (b. 1858) and Henry L (b. 1860).[22] For many decades, Robert Curry Owens was noted as the wealthiest Black man in Los Angeles.[23][22] Henry L. Owens died in 1893.[23] Later in life, Robert Curry Owens engaged in politics and real estate. He went on to own 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.[23]


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."[24]

After Mason's death on January 15, 1891, she was buried in an unmarked grave 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, the grave was marked with a tombstone.[25]

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.[26][4]

The church site is Biddy Mason Park, a Los Angeles city park and site of an art installation describing her life.[19][20] One of artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's best-known pieces is Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time,[27][28] an 82-foot-long (25 m) concrete wall with embedded objects in downtown Los Angeles (near where Mason lived) that tells the story of Mason's life.[29][17][30][31]

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.[32]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Hayden, Dolores (1995). The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. MIT Press. p. 274. ISBN 978-0262581523. Retrieved 5 May 2014. 1860 Census lists Mississippi, but 1870 & 1880 list Georgia as well as her LA Times obituary
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b c Hull, LeAnne von Neumeyer (24 March 2006), "Bridget Biddy Smith Mason: Her Legacy Among the Mormons", Black Voice News, Brown Publishing Company, archived from the original on 2014-08-08
  7. ^ "The Forgotten Pioneers". Part In Norma B. Ricketts, Crossroads, Vol. 8, No. 2 & 3 (Spring/Summer 1997).
  8. ^ Tucker, T. Michelle (2021). American Angels of the Old West. Lehi, Utah: Rose of Sharon Publishing. pp. 51–52. ISBN 9798640518160.
  9. ^ "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.
  10. ^ a b c d Gavin, Camille (2007). Biddy Mason: A Place of Her Own. America Star Books. ISBN 978-1632491909.
  11. ^ Hayes, Benjamin. "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
  12. ^ Tarr, Jeremy (2019-03-23). "10 Incredible, Insane, and Mostly True Stories About Downtown Los Angeles". Fodors Travel Guide. Retrieved 2019-03-25.
  13. ^ Tucker, T. Michelle (2021). American Angels of the Old West. Lehi, Utah: Rose of Sharon Publishing. pp. 53–54. ISBN 9798640518160.
  14. ^ Newton, Honey M. Zion's Hope: Pioneer Midwives and Women Doctors in Utah. ISBN 978-1462103430.
  15. ^ Reiter, Joan S. (1978), The Old West: The Women, p. 213. Time-Life Books.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ a b "Biddy Mason Park – Downtown Los Angeles Walking Tour". University of Southern California. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  20. ^ a b "Biddy Mason Park – the city project". UCLA – Remapping-LA. Archived from the original on 16 April 2014. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  21. ^ "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.
  22. ^ a b Jefferson, Alison Rose (2019-02-05). "Pioneering Black Urbanites in San Francisco and Los Angeles". California Historical Society. Retrieved 2020-03-10.
  23. ^ a b c "Finding Aid for the Miriam Matthews Photograph collection, 1781–1989". Retrieved 2020-03-10.
  24. ^ Weiler, Nicholas (September 28, 2020). "The Open Hand: A Conversation with the Descendants of Biddy Mason". UCSF Campus News. Retrieved 2021-03-24.
  25. ^ Greenstein, Albert (1999). "Bridget "Biddy" Mason". The Historical Society of Southern California. Archived from the original on March 3, 2014. Retrieved July 18, 2017.
  26. ^ "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.
  27. ^ "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 2013-08-17.
  28. ^ Lupton, Ellen. "Sheila Levrant de Bretteville". AIGA. AIGA. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  29. ^ "Brooklyn Museum on Biddy Mason: Time & Place".
  30. ^ Schrank, Sarah. "Los Angeles Public Art: Downtown to Watts". Public Art Dialogue. Public Art Dialogue. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  31. ^ Livingston, Michael (August 18, 2018). "Honoring the legacy and 200th birthday of slave-turned-entrepreneur Biddy Mason". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 29, 2019.
  32. ^ "Op-Ed: A monument to California's Black history may soon be destroyed". Los Angeles Times. 2020-07-10. Retrieved 2020-07-10.

Further readingEdit

  • Bogle, Donald (2005) Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. Ballentine Books, One World.[ISBN missing]
  • 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[ISBN missing]
  • Reiter, Joan S. (1978). The Old West: The Women. Time-Life Books.[ISBN missing]
  • Sherr, Lynn and Jurate Kazickas (1994). Susan B. Anthony Slept Here. A Guide to American Women's Landmarks, Random House.[ISBN missing]

External linksEdit