Overview: The slave, Bridget Mason, emancipated herself by court petition a few years after her owners moved to California, a free state. She found employment, lived within her means and in 1866, at the age of 48, became a Los Angeles landowner. Her first purchase cost $250. She bought land the rest of her life. She was no Hetty Green: as her wealth grew, so did her altruism. Among other philanthropic acts, in 1872 she donated the original lot the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles was built upon. When she died in 1891, she was worth about $300,000 in then-money, the equivalent of $8,700,000 in now-money. This is Biddy’s story.
Early Years: Bridget was born a slave in Hancock County, Georgia, on 15 August, 1818. She had neither middle name nor last name, for slaves were not considered important enough to require them. Her birth was only 29 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, who fought in the American Revolution, had died young 14 years before. Aaron Burr, who killed him, would not die for another 18 years.
As a young girl, Bridget was separated from her parents and sold several times, working for short periods on plantations in Georgia and Mississippi. A longer time was spent on John Smithson’s plantation in South Carolina where she assisted the house servants and midwives. She became quite proficient in midwifery.
In 1836, Smithson gave the 18-year-old Bridget, now nicknamed “Biddy”, to his cousins, Robert Marion Smith and Rebecca Crosby Smith, as a wedding present. She was subsequently taken to the Smith’s plantation in Mississippi where she nursed Robert’s chronically ill wife, Rebecca, and tended the forthcoming Smith children. In her spare time, she also worked the fields and cared for the livestock. During this period, she gave birth to three daughters, Ellen (1838), Ann (1844) and Harriet (1847), all rumored to have been fathered by R.M. Smith.
Utah: Robert Marion Smith and his family converted to Mormonism, subsequently responding to the call of church leaders to settle in the West, in a new Mormon community (now Salt Lake City) that was then a part of Mexico. The R.M. Smith family joined a train of 300 wagons to journey 1,700 miles to the Cottonwood area of the Salt Lake Valley. The trip took 7 months, at about 8 miles / day. That was probably a reasonable pace given non-working days and the continuing need to water, graze, and rest the stock.
Biddy, with baby Harriet (less than a year old) strapped to her back, walked flanking the R.M. Smith wagon while tending to a flock of sheep. It is presumed that her other daughters, Ellen (then aged 10) and Ann (age 4), found carriage in one of the wagons, where Ellen probably took care of her sister, Ann.
In addition to the sheep, Biddy was responsible for setting up and breaking camp, cooking meals, and delivering babies.
California: Three years after arriving in Salt Lake Valley, the Smiths joined a smaller 150-wagon train whose intent was to establish an even newer Mormon community in San Bernardino, California. Brigham Young warned that the new California constitution stated that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this state.” But R.M. Smith was a willful man and confident that his illiterate slaves would not learn, the moment they crossed into California, that they were suddenly legally free. And even if they did, he was certain they would not wish to change their station. Brigham Young’s cautionary words were ignored and Smith’s slaves accompanied him and his family to California.
During the trek, Biddy met Charles and Elizabeth Rowan, free blacks, who told her that slavery was illegal in California and urged her to legally dispute her status once she arrived.
In 1855, after 37 years as a slave, with the last four years as an enslaved woman in a free state, Biddy met Robert and Minnie Owens, free blacks, whose son had a romantic relationship with Biddy’s 17-year-old daughter, Ellen. The Owens reinforced the advice the Rowans had given earlier, and urged Biddy to seek her freedom through the courts.
Biddy’s master, R.M. Smith, discovered her intentions later that year. He immediately decided to pack up and take his entire household to Texas, a state where slavery was legal and worry over the chances of losing his human properties would be much reduced. Hearing of Smith’s intentions, Robert Owens told the Los Angeles County Sheriff, James R. Barton, that slaves were being illegally held. A casual posse, without benefit of legal authority, was immediately formed consisting of Robert Owens, his sons, and vaqueros from the Owens Ranch.
Sidebar – The Owens posse was likely advised that James R. Barton was the Sheriff of Los Angeles County and had no authority in San Bernardino County, where the offense was taking place. In any event, the Owens posse did not pause for formalities and immediately set off to seize R.M. Smith. The capture was accomplished in the Cajon Pass, San Bernardino County.
The rescue by the Owens posse seemed to galvanize Biddy, and she challenged R.M. Smith in court for her freedom. There were difficulties. At the time blacks were not legally permitted to testify against whites, but Judge Benjamin Hayes circumvented that little difficulty by interviewing Biddy in his judicial chambers. It was an unusual interrogation. First Smith was questioned in the courtroom, then Biddy was interviewed in chambers. This was repeated for three days, after which Judge Hayes ruled in favor of Biddy and her children. Biddy, her three daughters, and ten other African-American women and children, all of whom had been held as slaves by Robert Marion Smith during his years in California, were emancipated by Judge Hayes.
New Name: Biddy was free and needed a surname. To memorialize her manumission, she chose to be known as Bridget “Biddy” Mason because Mason was the middle name of Amasa Lyman, the white Mormon apostle and mayor of the city of San Bernardino. Biddy had known her for several years and had spent as much time as permitted in the company of the Amasa Mason Lyman household.
New Beginning: Biddy Mason and her daughters accepted Robert Owens’ invitation to live with him and his family. Biddy’s eldest daughter, Ellen, soon married Owens’ son Charles. Biddy began to work as a nurse and midwife for Dr. John Strother Griffin, a Los Angeles physician who had become interested in her court case. She quickly earned respect as a nurse and midwife, assisting in hundreds of births to mothers of all races and social classes. She also gained a reputation for her herbal remedies. Everywhere she went, she carried her tools in a black medical bag, the symbol of her calling. Also within the bag were the original papers Judge Hays had given her affirming that she was free.
Biddy Mason earned $2.50 a day, a good wage for an African-American woman at that time. She would have made more, except that she often donated her services to people unable to pay. Saving what she could and living frugally, in ten years she had accumulated an investment fund of $250.
Investment: On 28 November, 1866, she bought two contiguous Early Years lots in Los Angeles, fronting Spring Street, between Third and Fourth Streets. Her lots, then on the outskirts of the city, were a little over one block northwest of what is now Pershing Square. Biddy thus became one of the first African-American women to own property in Los Angeles. On one of the lots, she built a clapboard house that became her home.
The adjoining lot was initially used as a vegetable garden, but as funds became available, Biddy built some small houses to rent for additional income. She continued to rent the units for the next 18 years. When she was 66, she sold part of her land for $1,500 and built a commercial building on another parcel. She rented out the storerooms on the ground floor. Biddy and her family lived on the second floor.
Over the next several years, this former slave bought a number of additional nearby lots in Los Angeles. As the town developed, most of her early investments became prime urban real estate and formed the basis of her considerable wealth. In 1872, Biddy Mason and her son-in-law Charles Owens founded and financed the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first black church. The organizational meeting was held in Biddy’s home and attended by 12 people in addition to Biddy and Charles. In 1903, she donated the land on 8th St. where the original FAME church of Los Angeles was built. The 8th St. church slowly outgrew its site and in 1968 was replaced by a new campus in the Jefferson Park / West Adams area of Los Angeles. Under the guidance of the gifted Pastor J. Edgar Boyd, FAME has grown to become a mega-church of more than 19,000 members.
Later Years: Biddy’s neighborhood developed quickly, and by the Investment early 1890’s, the main financial district of Los Angeles was one block from her property. By that time, she was the wealthiest African-American woman in Los Angeles. She continued to purchase many parcels of land that, as the area developed around her became prime urban lots. Her estate, at her death in 1891, was around $300,000. In today’s money, that would be about $8,700,000. Biddy left most of that money to various charities.
Legacy: A slave owns neither her time nor her own property, thus Biddy Mason’s legacy did not really start until 1857 when at the age of 39 she was the direct cause of the emancipation of Robert Marion Smith’s 14 slaves. Later, as a skilled provider, she often donated her medical services to the needy. Later still, she was a prime mover supporting the establishment of the First African Episcopal Church and provided the land for its original building. At her death in 1891 at the age of 73, as noted above, she bequeathed gifts to numerous humanitarian organizations.
The exact date is unrecorded, but sometime after 1857 and before 1891, Bridget Biddy Mason’s three-fold empathy for others [vide supra: (i) their legal rights, (ii) their medical needs, and (iii) their spiritual requirements] caused the people who knew her, by consensus, to award her the high accolade “Grandma”.
Bridget Biddy “Grandma” Mason died both rich and well loved.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as professional advice. Klarise Yahya is not a financial planner. Nothing in this article is presented as investment guidance. For specific circumstances, please contact an appropriately licensed professional. Klarise Yahya is a Commercial Mortgage Broker specializing in difficult-to-place mortgages for any kind of property. If you are thinking of refinancing or purchasing real estate, perhaps Klarise Yahya can help. For a complimentary mortgage analysis, please call her at (818) 414-7830 or email [email protected].