Biddy Mason August 15, — January 15, was an African-American nurse and a Californian real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. Enslaved upon birth, she developed a variety of skills and developed knowledge of medicine, child care, and livestock care. A California court granted her and her daughters freedom in
Ina group of black Angelenos founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church at her house; the church met at the Mason home until they were able to move to their own building.
The kindly, cheerful greeting of this good soul made me feel almost that I was again at my old home. According to historian Cecilia Rasmussen:. In her big black medicine bag, she carried the tools of her trade—and the papers Judge Hays had given her affirming that she was free. She was a frequent visitor to the jail, speaking a word of cheer and leaving some token and a prayerful hope with every prisoner. If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come of it. She paid taxes and all expenses on church property to hold it for her people.
In January,all eyes were on the courtroom of U. District Judge Benjamin Hays as the trial began. The open hand is blessed, for it gives abundance, even as it receives. Technically, Mason and her children had also become free the minute they stepped into California. At her death, Mason was one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles. He planned to take them to Texas, hoping to take advantage of a California statute that stated that adults who voluntarily returned to a slave state would again be enslaved.
During her time in the Smith household, she gave birth to three daughters—Ellen, Ann, and Harriet. Inthe household began a long trek West to other Mormons in the new promised land of Salt Lake City. He also had a falling out with Mormon leaders in San Bernardino, and once again fell on hard times. Biddy Mason had made a contract with David Mulrein to pave the sidewalk in front of her residence.
A year later, a memorial in her honor was erected in a small park behind the Bradbury Building near Third and Spring. Mason was so well known in the evolving city that even her business spats were covered by no less than the Los Angeles Times.
Share this story
Born into slavery, her early life, including her family, is a mystery. As she grew old and infirm, and became too ill to see visitors, her grandson Robert was forced to go out to the gate and turn people away. But her new life was not without heartache—inher middle daughter Ann died, probably of smallpox.
Inthe restless Smith again packed up his household and ed a group of Mormons traveling to San Bernardino in the new state of California. The Smiths settled in Salt Lake City for two years.
Byshe had finally saved enough money to buy the Spring Street property. According to the Los Angeles Times :.
Kemp declared. On her remaining half, she built a two-story brick building. Although Mason was not allowed to testify against a white person in court, Judge Hays invited her into his chambers, where she gave an entirely different of what had happened. Mason was a shrewd businesswoman too. The Smiths were also converts to the new Mormon faith.
By the time she was a young adult she was enslaved in the Mississippi household of a farmer named Robert Smith and his sickly wife Rebecca. Through the Owens, Mason met Dr. John Strother Griffin, a white native Southerner who was impressed with her nursing skills. For reasons never fully explained, she was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery. She also continued to invest in real estate, while always making sure to give back. They included Elizabeth Rowan and the successful livery stable owner Robert Owens and his wife, Winnie.
Mason walked most of the way, tending to a flock of sheep, baby Harriet strapped to her back.
She went to work with Dr. Griffin as a nurse and midwife, and would eventually deliver hundreds of babies in Los Angeles. Smith told me I would be just as free in Texas as here. But perhaps the best memorial to Biddy Mason is her own words, remembered by her great-granddaughter Gladys, decades after her death:. Los Angeles. By the terms of this order, all families made homeless by the flood were to be supplied with groceries, while Biddy Mason cheerfully paid the bill. Right: A detail of the monument. Filed under: Longform.
Mason continued as a midwife, eventually setting up her own business. She remained very close to her daughters and their children, insisting that her grandchildren be educated and self-determined. During the flood of the early eighties, she gave an open order to a little grocery store, which was located on Fourth and Spring Streets. Mason tended to Rebecca and the Smith children, and became an expert nurse and midwife.
She was also made to work in the fields and take care of livestock. Right: Elizabeth Daniels. Inthe paper reported on a dispute over a sidewalk:. Dewitt, aided by wealthy black businessman Robert Owens, rode to their camp and served Smith a writ of habeas corpus. On January 15,Mason died at her beloved homestead in Los Angeles.
She rented the first floor to commercial interests and lived in an apartment on the second. Her life has been an inspiration to many.