Bridget “Biddy” Mason was an African-American woman who rose from slavery to become a successful landowner, philanthropist, and founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, California. Her life story is a testament to her resilience, courage, and generosity in the face of many challenges.
Biddy Mason was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1818. She had no surname and was given the nickname Biddy by her owners. She was sold several times and moved to different states, where she learned various skills such as domestic work, agriculture, herbal medicine, and midwifery. She also had three daughters: Ellen, Ann, and Harriet. In 1847, her last owner, Robert Smith, converted to Mormonism and decided to join the westward migration of the church members. He took Biddy and other enslaved people with him, forcing them to walk over 1,700 miles from Mississippi to Utah. Along the way, Biddy had to endure harsh conditions, perform heavy labor, and care for her children and others.
In 1851, Smith moved again to San Bernardino, California, which was then a free state. There he hoped to establish a new Mormon community. However, he ignored the fact that slavery was illegal in California and continued to hold Biddy and her family in bondage. Biddy met some free black people who advised her to petition for her freedom. She also befriended the Owens family, who were sympathetic to her plight.
In 1855, Smith planned to move to Texas and take Biddy and her family with him. He feared that they would escape or be freed by the authorities. However, he was stopped by a group of men led by Robert Owens, who informed the sheriff that Smith was holding slaves illegally. The sheriff arrested Smith and his party and brought them to Los Angeles.
Biddy’s case was heard by Judge Benjamin Hayes, who ruled in her favor on January 21, 1856. He granted freedom to Biddy and 13 other enslaved people, including her daughters and grandchildren. Biddy was 37 years old when she became free. She chose the surname Mason from Amasa Lyman, a Mormon leader who had been kind to her. Biddy Mason settled in Los Angeles with her family and worked as a nurse and midwife. She delivered hundreds of babies and cared for many people during a smallpox epidemic. She saved her money and invested it wisely. In 1866, she bought a lot on Spring Street for $250, becoming one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. She built a house and a commercial building on her property, which became very valuable as the city grew.
Biddy Mason was also a generous philanthropist who supported various causes. She donated land and money to build the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872, the first black church in Los Angeles. She also gave food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to the poor, the homeless, the orphaned, and the imprisoned. She was known as “Auntie Mason” or “Grandma Mason” by those who loved and respected her.
Biddy Mason died on January 15, 1891 at the age of 72. She was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. Her grave was unmarked until 1988, when a tombstone was erected by her descendants and other supporters. Her legacy lives on through her family and the many people she helped. She is remembered as one of the most remarkable women in Los Angeles history.