Biddy Mason: Californian Real Estate Entrepreneur and Philanthropist

Biddy Mason was born the same year that Madame Récamier’s friendship with François-René de Chateaubriand became intimate. But unlike Madame Récamier, Bridget, as she was named at birth, was not a French socialite. In fact, she was an African-American born into slavery on 15 August 1818. Exactly where she was born is unknown but various sources cite it as being in Hancock County (either Georgia or Mississippi).

Biddy Mason

Biddy Mason. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unlike Madame Récamier, Biddy had no last name and no standing in society. Everyone simply called her Bridget until she was nicknamed Biddy, a diminutive of Bridget, and she did not get her last name Mason until years later.

Bridget also did not have a luxurious pampered life like Madame Récamier. While a young girl, Biddy was removed from her parents after being purchased by another slave owner. She then spent most of her youth on a plantation owned by John Smithson where she learned the same kind of skills that other slaves did. These consisted of domestic and agricultural skills. In addition, she developed skills in herbal medicine and midwifery as these were passed down by tradition and considered highly beneficial to both slaves and plantation owners.

Some years before Biddy Mason was born, Robert M. Smith* was born in Edgefield District, South Carolina. His parents were John and Sarah Smith. His family and his relatives were poor struggling farmers, but when Smith’s grandfather (William Dean) died, he left Smith the handsome sum of $150.00, which he would use to improve his life.

While living in Edgefield District, Smith met Rebecca Dorn. Unlike Smith, she had a privileged upbringing. Her ancestors were Swiss immigrants who established a prosperous sixteen-hundred acre plantation on Sleepy Creek that eventually became Edgefield District. Her relatives were also educated and to ensure their plantation was a success, they owed slaves. In fact, Rebecca, who was born on 7 April 1810, had her own slave girl.

Smith and Dorn married around 1829 or 1830. The newlyweds remained in Edgefield District for a short time before Smith, who dreamed of being successful, used the money left him by his grandfather to move to Mississippi. Dorn’s slave girl was left behind either because Smith wanted no help from the Dorn family or because Dorn’s father was either unhappy about their marriage or their move.

After moving to the fertile and rich lands of Mississippi, Smith met missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), called Mormons by their enemies. Dorn was Protestant but interested in what the LDS missionaries had to say. Eventually Smith and Dorn’s interest in the church was great enough they converted. According to LDS church records, they  were baptized as Saints on 11 February 1844.

It was supposedly sometime between 1844 and the spring of 1848, that Biddy Mason then entered the picture, along with her sister Hannah and another slave named Ella. Exactly how three came to be with the Smiths is unclear. Conjecture is that a wealthy Saint may have wanted to help the struggling Smith family out, Dorn’s brother or a cousin may have given them as a gift, or the Smiths may have somehow purchased them. In addition, at the time, whenever a slave-owning family was baptized, their slaves were likewise baptized into the faith, but it is not clear if Biddy or any of Smith’s slaves were ever baptized members of the LDS church.

LDS members had varying and conflicting teachings about the question of slavery. Early Saints came from the North and opposed slavery based on their interpretations of LDS scripture. Moreover, their LDS leader and prophet, Joseph Smith (no relation to Robert M. Smith), wrote a pamphlet in 1844 titled Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States, which was then published in an LDS publication called the Times and Season in May, a month before Prophet Joseph Smith died. In the pamphlet the Prophet stated:

“Born in a land of liberty, and breathing an air uncorrupted with the sirocco of barbarous climes, I ever feel a double anxiety for the happiness of all men, both in time and in eternity. … where the Declaration of Independent ‘holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;’ but at the same time some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit of them is covered with a darker skin than ours.”[1]

Biddy Mason - Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the church gained members in slave states, some church leaders began to own slaves. New scriptures were then revealed teaching against interfering with slave owners or their slaves. The Prophet Smith was killed on June 27, 1844 in Carthage, Illinois, by non-believers. After his death, the church split into two groups: The largest contingency were Saints (LDS) who followed Brigham Young while the remainder followed Joseph Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III. This second group became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS).

Brigham Young. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Young’s take on slavery was different than his predecessor. He supported slavery but opposed abuse. Moreover, he claimed that the Republican party’s efforts to abolish slavery went against the decrees of God and would eventually fail. After the Prophet Smith’s death, non-believers continued to persecute LDS Saints and they were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois. Then, according to church history, God inspired Young to call the Saints to organize themselves and move West, beyond the western frontier of the United States.

A migration of LDS Saints, called pioneers, began moving west in 1846, and Young soon after designated the Salt Lake Valley as the promised land. Other pioneers then began making the trek to Salt Lake City where the Saints were busily building their kingdom of Zion with the promise that the desert would blossom like a rose. In addition, Brigham Young became the official prophet of the LDS church on 27 December 1847.

Having converted to the LDS religion, Robert M. Smith decided he wanted to leave Mississippi and move his family to Utah Territory to join the Saints in the promised land. Young was allowing slaves to be brought to the Utah Territory but prohibited the enslavement of their descendants, although he was at the time encouraging members to participate in the Indian slave trade. As African-American slaves were allowed in Utah Territory, Smith was part of a larger LDS caravan consisting of 300 wagons, 34 slaves, and 56 white pioneers who left Fulton, Mississippi, on 10 March 1848 heading to Utah.

Young required that slaves give their consent to the move, and Biddy was among the 34 slaves who agreed to go. Supposedly, she and the other slaves were promised their freedom if they made the trip. During the 7 month 1,700 mile trek by the pioneers, Biddy was given important responsibilities that included herding the cattle, tending the children, cooking meals, helping the women, and delivering babies.

Typical pioneer caravan. Author’s collection.

Biddy Mason had given birth to three daughters: Ellen in 1838, Ann in 1842, and Harriet in 1848. Many people allege all three were fathered by Smith but there are also other reports that she arrived at Smith’s in Mississippi with the children. There are also claims that Smith fathered nine children with Biddy’s sister Hannah.

Whatever the truth, after settling in the Salt Lake City, Smith learned that a new LDS settlement was being established in California. Young was looking for volunteers to help establish the city of San Bernardino for converts expected from Asia and the Pacific Isles. Smith decided he wanted to help. Once again, he, his family, and slaves packed up and in 1851 they joined a 150-wagon caravan that took the California Trail and made the nearly 650 mile journey to San Bernardino.

“Smith would learn that California’s laws left the matter of slave ownership in question. The state constitution, drafted in 1849, forbade slavery, but a debate over the slave question was argued between opposing forces until September 1850. At that time, California became a member of the Union as a free state. Some confusion remained over the status of those who entered California before and after the state joined the Union. This prompted Smith to plan to relocate his family and slaves to Texas, where slavery was still legal. Meanwhile, Biddy Mason learned of the possibility of the move and feared that she would remain enslaved and not be freed as promised. She sought the advice of two free blacks in Los Angeles, who, along with a local influential black entrepreneur, contacted local authorities who invaded Smith’s encampment site and served him a writ of habeas corpus.”[2]

The case regarding Biddy and the other slaves owned by Smith was to be heard before district court Judge Benjamin Hayes. It was no easy task for Biddy to bring a suit against her master Smith:

“To understand Biddy’s courage in going to court against her master, it is first necessary to think of her lifetime in Mississippi, her complete immersion in the culture of the southern plantation, where physical torments such as whipping and being hosed down in brine would have been common punishment for both male and female slaves’ minor infractions. Even pregnant slaves were routinely whipped, but in special pits to protect the fetus. Any slave’s loved ones could be put on the block — husband, wife, child — and sold, never to be seen again. In this context, all slaves’ courage in risking a public test of white men’s justice is striking. It is also important to note that after 1850, California law prohibited Blacks, Mulattoes, and Indians from testifying against white persons in either criminal or civil cases. They were present in court as petitioners, but had to remain silent.”[3]

Fortunately, Biddy and the others were successful in their petition and accordingly they were told by the judge who heard their case that they were “entitled to their freedom and are free forever.”[4] They were manumitted on January 1, 1856. However, Biddy did not receive a certified copy of the document that guaranteed her freedom until 1860. As a slave Biddy also had never had a last name and she did not get one until after emancipation. At that time, she chose Mason, the middle name of Amasa Mason Lyman, who helped establish a Mormon foothold in the San Bernardino Valley. He also served as mayor of that city, a counselor to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and an LDS apostle who helped led some Saints to the Salt Lake Valley.

Amasa Mason Lyman. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Once free, Biddy Mason realized that just like the “California Dream” was available to miners seeking gold during the Gold Rush, it was also available to her. She saw California as the land opportunity and settled in Los Angeles. The Masons moved in temporarily with the Robert Owens, a well-known black citizen in LA who owned real estate, and his family, who were free themselves and who had helped her in her suit for freedom against her master. In addition, one of the Owens’ sons, Charles Owens, had fallen in love with Biddy’s daughter Ellen, was courting her, and would eventually marry her.

In California, Biddy began to take immediate advantage of her newfound freedom. She now had the ability to earn money and keep it and it was through the Owens family that she met Dr. John S. Griffin, a southern gentleman impressed by her herbal, medical, and midwifery skills. She then obtained employment with him, and for the next 25 years, she served the local community with her well-honed medical abilities.

As Biddy was busy working hard and thinking about her future, tragedy struck around 1857 when her middle daughter Ann died, likely from smallpox. Despite the tragedy, Biddy Mason wanted a good life and she began to save her money to buy a home for her and her family. She was guided in her investments by Owens, and her employer Griffin and ten years from the date she freed, on 28 November 1866, she purchased two lots for $250.00. This land was later described as having “a ditch of water on the place and a willow fence running along the plat of ground which was considered quite out of town at that date.”[5] Among the properties that Biddy Mason came to own in this area where those located at No. 331, 333, and 335 South Spring Street.

“The first piece of property she purchased was one that was considered on the outskirts of town. After obtaining the deed to this property, she told her children that this was always to remain as their homestead, and it mattered not what their circumstances, they were always to retain this homestead.”[6]

A garden and some houses were built and rented on two plots. In the meantime, she rented a small place on San Pedro Street. She eventually sold part of her land holdings for $1,500 and then another portion for $44,000. In addition, she continued to acquire other parcels of land in the area. Her L.A. land investments were eventually located in prime areas that included some in the heart of L.A.’s financial district, and, thus, before long she had amassed a fortune estimated to be worth $300,000 at the time.

Although Biddy Mason was prudent and wise when it came to real estate investing, she was not just interested in becoming rich. She was a philanthropist and a religious person who believed in doing good. For instance, in 1872, along with her son-in-law Owens, she established and financed the building of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was built on land she donated and was the city’s first black church.

She was also a humanitarian concerned with others, and, she never forgot what it was like to be poor. Biddy Mason’s kindness and thoughtfulness were demonstrated by an article published years later that described her caring attitude of those less fortunate:

“Biddy Mason was well known throughout Los Angeles County for her charitable work. She was a frequent visitor to the jail, speaking a word of cheer and leaving some token and a prayerful hope with every prisoner. A religious woman, ‘Grandma Mason,’ as she was known, personally paid the taxes and expenses of her church. She helped the poor in slums and the victims of catastrophe. After a flood in the 1880s, she ordered a grocery to supply food to all homeless victims and bill her for the costs.”[7]

Biddy Mason died on 15 January 1891, at the age of 73. Years after she passed, in 1904, a memorial window was dedicated to her at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church she had founded. Mayor Snyder spoke at the dedication stating:

“Nearly twenty-three years ago it was my privilege to first meet Biddy Mason, or ‘Aunt Biddy,’ as we loved to call her. I had come from the home of the colored people, and for some purpose my employer sent me to see Aunt Biddy Mason. The kindly cheerful greeting of this good soul made me feel almost that I was again at my old home.

She was a good woman, and you are fully justified in today honoring her memory with this memorial window. There are many lessons to be learned from the life of this good woman. One of these is the important that we must strive against selfishness, the monster which you fight at every point.

… Like Biddy Mason, let us so order our conduct that people in contact with us may not forget us, and that our memories and deeds may shine forth as bright as the evening star. When we are called on to go hence and the tomb awaits these mortal bodies … may our brothers and sisters say of us, as [we now] say of her, .… ‘she was a good woman.’”[8]

Biddy Mason obituary

Biddy Mason’s obituary in 1891 from the Los Angeles Herald. Author’s collection.

Biddy Mason was buried it was in an unmarked grave in the Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Years later, on March 27, 1988, she was honored as she should have been years earlier. It involved a ceremony marking her grave with a tombstone and included members of the church she had founded and the mayor of Los Angeles. The following year she was again honored when Biddy Mason Day was declared and celebrated on 16 November 1989. There was also a ceremony at the Broadway Spring Center where a memorial was unveiled to make sure she will never be forgotten and you can still see it today as it is an enormous 8-by-81 foot timeline, that details Biddy’s history with that of Los Angeles during the nineteenth century.

*People list Smith’s middle name as either Marion or Mays.

References:

  • [1] Times and Seasons v. 5 (Nauvoo: John Taylor, 1844), p. 528.
  • [2] J. C. Smith, ed., Encyclopedia of African American Business: K-Z (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006), p. 494.
  • [3] D. Hayden, “Biddy Mason’s Los Angeles 1856-1891,” California History 68, no. 3 (1989), p. 90–91.
  • [4] D. Hayden, p. 91.
  • [5] S. M. Ruddick and M. B. Welch, “The Story of Biddy Mason,” UCLA, http://www.publicartinla.com/Downtown/Broadway/Biddy_Mason/ruddick_Biddy_Mason.htm
  • [6] D. L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California: A Compilation of Records from the California Archives in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, in Berkeley; and from the Diaries, Old Papers, and Conversations of Old Pioneers in the State of California (Los Angeles: Times Mirror printing and binding house, 1919), p. 90.
  • [7] The Morning Call, “They Had a Dream,” July 3, 1971, p. 29.
  • [8] The Los Angeles Times, “Mayor Snyder in Pulpit,” March 7, 1904, p. 5.

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