The Marvelous Ms. Mason: From Slavery to Richest Woman in the West

February is an important month in my household because it’s my birth month and “Black History Month.” Foundational Black Americans have been pillars of our nation since its inception. We have been the builders, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, and farmers that built the country. A single month is not significant to pay homage to Black leaders of the past and present. During this article, I want to highlight the life of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Mason was known as the godmother of Los Angeles. 

Bridget Mason was born into slavery in Hancock, Georgia, on August 15, 1818. Her early life and family remain a mystery, but we do have some details about her time as an enslaved person. As a young adult, she was enslaved on the Smith plantation in Mississippi. She tended to Robert Smith’s wife and children due to her natural talent as a nurse and midwife. Smith also forced Mason to work with livestock in the field. Despite the harsh conditions, Mason built a family, and she had three daughters named Harriet, Ellen, and Ann.

In 1847, Mason’s life was uprooted when the Smith family converted to Mormonism and journeyed to Salt Lake City, Utah. Smith forced Ms. Mason to walk most of the way with her children strapped to her back. For two years, she lived in Salt Lake City before the Smith family forced her to relocate to San Bernardino, California. 

The Smith family settled in Southern California because they invested in the booming cattle economy. In California, Mason met former slaves such as Elizabeth Rowan and the successful stable owner Robert Owens. Many former slaves discovered that they were free as soon as they entered California. The California constitution stated that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude unless punishment of crimes shall ever be tolerated in this state.” Yet, Ms. Mason was unaware of the state’s constitution, so she had continued to serve under Smith. 

The sizable former slave population and growing tension between the North and South made Smith paranoid about a potential slave revolt. He decided to move to Santa Monica in 1855 to isolate his slaves from the general population. He hoped to take them to Texas because he wanted to exploit laws that stated slaves who voluntarily returned to slave states were reenslaved. 

Luckily, Elizabeth Rowan, a free Black woman, sent word to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office that Mason and other slaves needed help. L.A County Sheriff Frank Dewitt and Robert Owens rode to Smith’s camp to serve him legal papers. Smith was ordered to appear in court for “persuading, enticing and seducing blacks out of the state of California.” Meanwhile, Mason and Smith’s other slaves were taken to Los Angeles city jail to remove them from Smith’s cruel plan to take them to Texas. 

In January of 1856, Smith faced a trial under Judge Benjamin Hayes. Smith’s defense argued that Mason and the 14 other people accompanying him to Texas were his “family” and that they voluntarily offered to join him. Black people were not allowed to testify against white people in court, but the judge invited Mason to his chambers to hear her account of the journey. 

“I have always done what I have been told to do.” Ms.Mason told the judge. “I always feared this trip to Texas since I first heard of it. Mr. Smith told me I would be just as free in Texas.” The judge explained that the reality was different from Smith’s account. He told Mason that her children would be enslaved in Texas despite being minors. Mason replied,  “I do not want to be separated from my children,” before suggesting she did not want to go to Texas. On January 19th, Judge Hays ruled in favor of Ms. Mason and the slaves of Robert Smith. The judge’s ruling granted Mason legal freedom. 

After winning her case, Ms.Mason and her daughters moved into the Owens family home in Los Angeles. Charles Owens married Ms.Mason’s eldest daughter named Ellen. Dr. John Strother Griffin, a white southerner, hired Ms. Mason to work as a nurse and midwife. In this role, she delivered hundreds of babies while carrying her famous black medicine bag. Her work as a midwife earned her the affectionate title “Aunt Biddy,” and she became one of the most beloved members of the dusty town of Los Angeles. She was undoubtedly the most well-known Black resident in the city. 

Mason invested her money into her family. By 1866, she saved enough money to buy a property on Spring Street that she believed would be her family’s haven. Ellen recounted a tale of her mother explaining that the “first homestead must never be sold” because she always wanted her family to be able to call it their home. The home on Spring Street also became a refuge for strangers and impoverished locals. She ran a daycare for working women, allowed civil meetings, and helped form community organizations from her home’s sacred halls. In 1872, a group of freed Blacks started the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles at Ms.Mason’s house. 

Mason’s charitable, compassionate nature was evident to all residents of L.A. According to the Los Angeles Times, she frequently spread messages of joy to prisoners in the local jail. She was known to give gifts to prisoners and poor children. In the slums of the city, people referred to her as “Grandma Mason” because she gave them food and shelter. She also paid the taxes and expenses for the church on her property. 

Most memorably, she aided the homeless during the flood of the early 1880s. During the tragic event, she told the grocery story to grant all homeless families groceries because she would gladly pay their bill. 

She was able to invest in her community because she found her calling in real estate. Between 1870 and her death, Ms. Mason amassed a fortune of $300,000 (roughly $6 million today). She was considered “the richest woman west of the Mississippi,” and that sum certainly made her wealthier than most men in the United States. The feat is even more remarkable because she was enslaved for the first 37 years of her life. 

On January 15, 1891, Ms. Bridget “Biddy” Mason passed away in her home in Los Angeles. She left behind a family and community that loved her. As she became an ancestor, she left a legacy of perseverance, compassion,  and triumph.

 

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Dawaun Davis
Executive Director at The Commoner | + posts

Dawaun Davis is an activist and political writer from Baltimore, MD. Davis is a proud Foundational Black American, and he hopes to use his growing platform to help young Black people with their struggles.

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