Once she was freed, she purchased land in 1800s Los Angeles.
Illustration by Tatiana Cardenas
THE GOOD NEWS:
There's no shortage of incredible stories of amazing women throughout history.
Victorian Los Angeles was a ruthless, transient place.
A dusty, Wild West outpost of schemers and desperados, there was little in the way of social services or charitable works to aid the countless people who found themselves stranded or abandoned by their California dreams in the late 1800s.
But there was one “refuge for stranded and needy settlers.” Lines of troubled people would form outside an unpretentious, cozy clapboard house, waiting to meet with the owner of the home, Biddy Mason. They were seeking money, medical aid, advice, or just a place to rest their heads.
And Mason was ready to give back.
According to the book “Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason: From Slave to Businesswoman,” she would say: “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.”
The road to freedom
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in Georgia in 1818. In 1851, she was brought to Southern California by her owner, Robert Smith, along with her three young daughters. Although California was a free state, Mason stayed in the service of Smith, either unaware of her rights, or fearful of repercussions if she attempted to flee. However, Mason befriended several free black people who would have been aware she and her family were being illegally enslaved.
In 1855, Smith took Mason and some other slaves to hide in the Santa Monica mountains. He planned to take them to the slave state of Texas before authorities confirmed their freedom. But Smith’s plans were thwarted when Mason’s friend Elizabeth Rowan alerted Los Angeles County law enforcement of the captives’ peril.
Mason and the rest of Smith’s slaves were rescued by local sheriffs and taken to the makeshift Los Angeles jail for their own safety. In January 1856, Judge Benjamin Hayes issued his ruling: "All of the said persons of color are entitled to their freedom and are free forever."
Mason was now officially free. But now, she was a single woman in Los Angeles with three children to support.
The town she found herself in was a patriarchal, violent pueblo of roughly 2,500 souls, which boasted the highest homicide rate in the country. Comprised of Native Californians, Anglos, Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, French, and a handful of African-Americans, Los Angeles was a bubbling caldron of rivalries and repercussions.
Luckily, Mason had friends, and much-needed skills.
A trained midwife and nurse, her gifts were urgently needed in frontier Los Angeles. A friend introduced her to Dr. John Strother Griffin, and soon she became his right-hand woman. In the ensuing years, “Grandma” Biddy would deliver hundreds of Angelenos of all races, from all types of family. She became a comforting presence in town, carrying her trademark large black bag. Inside, she carried her midwife instruments, and the papers that declared that she was free.
Mason clearly saved carefully. By 1866, she had amassed enough money to buy her very own homestead — a parcel of land. On it, she built a small wooden house, and made her daughter promise to never sell the land. After a life of forced wandering, Mason was finally home.
But Mason didn’t stop there. Following the advice of her friend Robert Owens and her employer Dr. Griffin, she began to buy plots all over what is now downtown Los Angeles. She made sure her family also owned land, deeding property to her grandsons “for the sum of love and affection and 10 dollars.”
Success in real estate
Her investments paid off. During the 1870s and 1880s, the population of Los Angeles exploded, and her land and buildings became prime real estate. Through her properties, Mason eventually built a fortune worth around $300,000. This made her the richest black woman west of the Mississippi. She signed all her contracts with a large X. Raised as a slave, Mason had never learned to read or write.
But it wasn’t her riches that made Mason a legend. Her home became a community center of sorts; there was purportedly a daycare on the property for the children of working women, and needy people came calling when faced with trouble. In 1872, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles was founded at her house. Services were held there until she helped find them a permanent building.
Mason made people feel comfortable and like they belonged. “The kindly, cheerful greeting of this good soul,” Meredith Snyder, a former mayor of Los Angeles recalled, “made me feel almost that I was again at my old home.” Mason often went to the city jail, ministering, feeding, and listening to prisoners of all races. After a great flood, Mason set up a grocery store to feed victims of the disaster. She paid for it all.
The heart of Los Angeles
By the early 1890s, the forlorn pueblo that Mason had been brought to was a budding city on the brink of modernism, with around 50,000 residents. But people still lined up at her home, which was now surrounded by a bustling commercial center, for assistance. In 1891, her family began to turn them away — Mason was too sick to help. She died a fabulously wealthy woman at her beloved home on January 15, 1891.
Against all odds, Mason helped to transform the restless way station of Los Angeles into a familiar, friendly community worthy of calling home.