Grassroots Giving By a Former Slave

  • Local Projects
  • 1872

Biddy Mason was a slave brought into California by her owner in 1851. California had just become a state, and a free one. That meant anyone in its territory held in involuntary servitude was free. In 1854, a county sheriff in Santa Monica informed Mason’s owner that she and his other slaves were now entitled to independence, and could not be taken to Texas, where he was threatening to legally re-enslave them. A judge placed Mason into protective custody and settled her in 1856 in the home of a free black family in Los Angeles.

Biddy took up work as a midwife and home nurse, assiduously saved money, and—though she had no formal education whatever and was illiterate—soon owned a residence of her own. She showed a facility for buying and selling property, and made thousands of dollars investing in plots in the area that would become downtown Los Angeles.

Mason soon started using her wealth to help others through charitable aid. She founded and worked in the city’s first nursery for orphans and abandoned children. She arranged credit and loans so families in financial straits could buy food from local grocers. She built a boarding house for people in need of shelter. She visited prisoners in the local jail, and patients in hospitals and asylums. In 1872 she provided the funds and land to construct the first African-American church in Los Angeles.

By the time of her death in 1891, Biddy Mason owned property on the east side and the west side of Los Angeles, plus many plots in the downtown area on Second and Third Streets, Spring Street and Broadway, Eighth and Hill Streets, and elsewhere. She was one of the wealthier landowners in the city. Her daughters and then grandchildren continued to use her fortune to help people in need, especially African Americans newly arrived in the region.

  • Marne Campbell, “African American Women, Wealth Accumulation, and Social Welfare Activism,” Journal of African American History, Fall 2012
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