Bridget “Biddy” Mason was an African-American nurse and a Californian real-estate entrepreneur and notable philanthropist. Mason who was born into the Maafa (slavery) become free after she moved with her enslavers to California and in a landmark case sued for her freedom. She built a career in Los Angeles as a nurse and a midwife, saved her earnings, invested in real estate, and used her business skills to become one of the wealthiest Black women in the United States after the Civil War, as well as a generous contributor to social causes, despite the fact that she was illiterate.
Bridget Mason, known to everyone as “Biddy,” was born into the Maafa on August 15, 1818. Her place of birth was probably Hancock County, Georgia, though some historians cite it as Mississippi. She was of mixed African American and Native American descent, but the names of her parents are unknown. As an enslaved child, she was separated from her parents and sold several times, working on plantations in Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. She spent much of her childhood working on John Smithson’s plantation in South Carolina, where she assisted the house servants and midwives.
In 1836 Smithson gave the 18-year-old Mason, two other female house servants, and a blacksmith to his cousins, Robert Marion Smith and Rebecca (Crosby) Smith, as a wedding present. Mason was forbidden to learn to read or write, but she learned many practical skills, including medicine and midwifery. These skills made her a valuable asset to the Smiths on their plantation in Logtown, Mississippi. Mason took care of Rebecca Smith, who was often ill and helped with the deliveries of the Smiths’ six children. She also worked outdoors in the cotton fields and cared for livestock.
While working for the Smiths in Mississippi, Mason had three daughters. The first, Ellen, was born on October 15, 1838. The second, Ann, was born in 1844, and Harriet was born four years later. Robert Smith was probably the father of all three.
The Smiths became Mormon converts in 1847. Robert Smith then decided to follow the call of church leaders to settle in the West. Mason and her children joined other Atlantians/bondpeople (enslaved Blacks) on Smith’s religious pilgrimage to establish a new Mormon community in what would become Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time Utah was still part of Mexico.
In 1848 30-year-old Mason walked 1,700 miles behind a 300-wagon caravan that eventually arrived in the Holladay-Cottonwood area of the Salt Lake Valley. Along the route west, Mason’s responsibilities included setting up and breaking camp, cooking the meals, herding the cattle, and serving as a midwife as well as taking care of her three young daughters aged ten, four, and an infant.
In 1851 Smith and his family and bondpeople set out in a 150-wagon caravan for San Bernardino, California to establish yet another Mormon community. Ignoring Brigham Young’s warning that the Maafa was illegal in California, Smith brought Mason and other enslaved people to the new community. Along the trek, Mason met Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, free Blacks, who urged her to legally contest her enslaved status once she reached California, a free state. Mason received additional encouragement by free Black friends whom she met in California, Robert and Minnie Owens.
In December 1855 Robert Smith, fearing to lose his bondpeople, decided to move with them to Texas, a Maafa state. The Owens family had a vested interest in the Mason family as one of their sons was romantically involved with Mason’s 17-year-old daughter. When Robert Owens told the Los Angeles County Sheriff that the bondpeople were being illegally held, he gathered a posse which including Owens and his sons, other cowboys, and vaqueros from the Owens ranch. The posse apprehended Smith’s wagon train in Cajon Pass, California en route to Texas and prevented him from leaving the state.
After spending five years enslaved in a “free” state Bridget Mason challenged Robert Smith for her freedom. On January 19, 1856, she petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of 13 women and children. Los Angeles District Judge Benjamin Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor of Mason and her extended family, citing California’s 1850 constitution which prohibited slavery.
Mason and her family moved to Los Angeles where her daughter married the son of Robert and Minnie Owens. Mason began to work as a midwife and nurse for Dr. John Strother Griffin. She quickly gained a reputation, becoming well known for her herbal remedies. Mason delivered babies for families of various races and social classes. She earned $2.50 a day, a good wage for an African American woman at that time. She also often gave her services to those unable to pay. After working as a midwife for ten years, Mason had saved $250. On November 28, 1866, Mason bought two lots bounded by Spring, Fort, Third, and Fourth Streets on the outskirts of the city. She was one of the first African American women to buy property in the United States.
Mason initially used the land for gardening and built some small wooden houses to rent for additional income. She continued to rent accommodations for the next 18 years. Mason finally moved to her own land in 1884, when she was 66. She sold part of her land for $1,500 and built a commercial building on another part. Mason rented out storerooms on the ground floor and lived with her family on the second floor. Her neighborhood developed quickly, and by the early 1890s, the main financial district of Los Angeles was one block from Mason’s property. Due to her shrewd investments, Mason was the wealthiest African American woman in Los Angeles by the late 1800s.
Mason devoted much of her time and energy to religious and community works. She opened her homestead to needy people, and lines of people seeking her assistance often formed on Spring Street. She also donated money and land to schools, daycare centers, grocery stores, and churches, and she visited jail inmates regularly. Mason did much to help working African American families establish themselves in Los Angeles. In 1872, she and her son-in-law, Charles Owen, formed the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. According to Dolores Hayden’s article in California History, Mason’s great-granddaughter Gladys Owens Smith quoted Mason as 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.”
Bridget “Biddy” Mason died in Los Angeles in 1891.
Despite her prosperity, Mason was buried in an unmarked grave in Evergreen Cemetery in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. A tombstone was laid at the site nearly one hundred years later on March 27, 1988, by Mayor Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, and several thousand members of the First African Methodist Episcopal church. A year later, November 16, 1989, was declared “Biddy Mason Day” in Los Angeles. The next day, a new mixed-use building called the Broadway Spring Center was opened on the spot where Mason’s homestead once stood. The site included an 8-by-81-foot memorial wall dedicated to Mason that included a collage of Mason’s original frame house at the site.