A detail from Biddy Mason Memorial Park in Los Angeles, which recalls the life of the pioneer. (Don Barrett/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

From a slave to one of L.A.’s great philanthropists: the life of Biddy Mason

Biddy Mason was brought to California as a slave in 1851. Then she became one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest women.

Mason was born on Aug. 15, 1818, most likely in Hancock County, Georgia. As a young woman she was enslaved by a Mississippi farmer named Robert Smith, a convert to Mormonism who joined his church’s migration West in 1847. With Mason and her three children in tow, Smith went first to Utah, then the free state of California.

In time, Biddy became known to the small community of free blacks in Los Angeles, who convinced authorities to compel Smith to address the matter of Mason’s status in court. The judge confirmed that she was free.

Biddy Mason in an undated portrait.
Charles E. Young Research Library/UCLA

Mason found work assisting a doctor and midwifing hundreds of babies. She became known around town as “Aunt Biddy.” By 1866, she had saved enough to buy a wood frame house on Spring Street, where she opened a day care and helped found the city’s first black church. She also continued to invest in real estate, signing deeds with a flourished “X.”

As her wealth grew, Mason became one of Los Angeles’ great philanthropists. She sheltered needy settlers, made regular visits to inmates at the jail, and distributed groceries during a flood. By the 1880s, it was common to see a line of people seeking help at her gate.

Mason died on Jan. 15, 1891, at the age of 72. Her fortune was estimated at $300,000 — about $8 million today. “It is not for this property,” her lawyer said during a memorial, “but her sweet, helpful Christian character that Biddy Mason is remembered.” Curbed Los Angeles

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