Bridget “Biddy” Mason (August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891) was an African American nurse and midwife and a Californian real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Mason was born into slavery in Georgia. She was given to Robert Smith and his wife as a wedding present. After the Smiths became Mormons, they migrated to the Utah territory, taking their slaves with them. In 1851, Smith decided to move to California to establish a Mormon community in San Bernardino. Once in California, Mason managed to escape from her owner, along with Smith’s other slaves. Smith pursued them and tried to recapture them. But Mason sued for and won her freedom in a Los Angeles court, along with the freedom of her three daughters and the other slaves who escaped with them. California had been admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state and slavery was forbidden there.
Mason settled with her family in Los Angeles and began working as a nurse and midwife. After ten years, she used her savings to purchase land there. Mason was one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. Over time, she wisely developed and managed her real estate holdings and eventually amassed a fortune of nearly $300,000.
As highly regarded as Mason was for her business acumen, her true calling was philanthropy. She used the money to feed, clothe and house poor people in her community. She helped establish a traveler’s aid center and an elementary school for black children. She was one of the founders of Los Angeles’ first black church, donating the land upon which the First African Methodist Episcopal Church was built.
To honor her achievements, every year on November 16, the City of Los Angeles celebrates Biddy Mason Day. In 2002, Mason was inducted in the California Social Work Hall of Distinction.
Photo: Bridget “Biddy” Mason, Los Angeles Public Library, Miriam Matthews Collection