Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1818 without a last name. At 18, she was given as a wedding present to Robert Smith. By 1848 Smith and his household had become Mormon, and decided to journey to Utah with a 300 wagon caravan. Biddy and her three daughters—a 10 year-old, a 4 year-old, and an infant (all three probably fathered by Smith himself)—walked the 1,700 miles. Biddy helped to break camp, cook, herd cattle, and serve as a midwife for the caravan.
Although the Mormon Church did not have black members at the time, they did encourage Smith to free his slaves (including Biddy and her daughters), but Smith refused. When Brigham Young sent Smith and his household to San Bernardino, California to establish a Mormon settlement, though, Biddy saw her chance for freedom. California was a free state, so she escaped with several other slaves. However Smith captured her and her party and quickly decided to move to Texas, a slave state, to protect what he considered to be his property. But before the family could leave California, the Los Angeles county sheriff—tipped off to Smith’s illegal activity—stopped them on the El Cajon pass and prevented their exit. Biddy then filed a petition in district court for her freedom, the freedom of her daughters, and 10 other slaves held by Smith.
After three days of deliberation, Judge Benjamin Hayes handed down a ruling in favor of Biddy and her extended family. Free, Biddy took the last name of Mason, the middle name of the mayor of San Bernardino, and moved with her daughters to Los Angeles.
She began working as a nurse and midwife for physician John Griffin, earning $2.50 per day. Within ten years Biddy was able to save enough money to buy a parcel of land on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles for $250, becoming the first black woman to own land in Los Angeles. Her parcel was one block from the heart of the financial district. She then sold part of the land, and on the remaining property built several homes and a commercial building.
As Biddy Mason’s wealth began to grow so did her generosity. She supported many charities that provided food and shelter for the poor of Los Angeles, and often visited inmates in county jail. Additionally she built a school, and helped African-Americans start businesses. In 1872, Biddy financed the establishment of the Los Angeles branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became a founding member.
By the time of her death in 1891, Biddy had become one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles. But despite her prominence Biddy Mason was buried in an unmarked grave in Boyle Heights, and for reasons that defy logic it took 100 years for the city she’d blessed so significantly to officially celebrate her life.
Finally on November 16, 1991 Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, and the City Council proclaimed “Biddy Mason Day” in Los Angeles and a tombstone was placed on her final resting place. The next day a mixed-use building named the Broadway Spring Center was opened on the site of her original home. The site contains an 8-by-81 foot memorial wall honoring this remarkable woman.
Biddy Mason is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.