Bridget “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. Born a slave, 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.
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. She was given the name Bridget with no surname and was later nicknamed Biddy. 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 John Smithson.
In December 1855 Robert Smith, fearing losing his slaves, decided to move with them to Texas, a slave state. However, the Owens family had a vested interest in Biddy Mason and her family as one of the sons was romantically involved with Mason’s 17-year-old daughter. When Robert Owens told the Los Angeles County Sheriff that slaves 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 Mason and her extended family.
After becoming free, Mason and her daughters moved in with Robert Owens, the father of Charles Owens and a well-known Los Angeles businessman. Her daughter Ellen would eventually marry Charles Owens. 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.
Saving carefully, she was one of the first African American women to own land in Los Angeles. As a businesswoman, she amassed a relatively large fortune of nearly $300,000 (nearly $6M today), which she shared generously with charities. Mason also fed and sheltered the poor, and visited prisoners. 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. Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her “Auntie Mason” or “Grandma Mason.”
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. The organizing meetings were held in her home on Spring Street. She also helped to establish the first elementary school for black children in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Biddy Mason’s enormous contributions to Los Angeles and to meet some of DTLA’s great black entrepreneurs, book our Biddy Mason Black Entrepreneurs of DTLA Tour today!