Inspiring Stories Series: Do You Know Who Biddy Mason Was?

As someone who draws inspiration from people who have had to overcome obstacles I will never know, I’m always looking for those stories to remind myself of how resilient and capable the human spirit is. Here’s one such story I am guessing many people may have come across: do you know of the philanthropist Biddy Mason?

She earned her money the hard way: working as a midwife and nurse and then learning how to invest it in real estate. By the time Mason died in 1891, she had founded the first Black church (the First A.M.E. Church) in southern California and gifted most of her $3 million wealth to charity, helping to create an elementary school for Black children in Los Angeles as well as a traveler’s aid center.

For a woman in the late 1800’s to have such an impact in her adopted city of Los Angeles is inspiring enough. But this story is even more inspiring. Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born a slave in Mississippi in 1818. Her travel to California was as a slave in 1848, walking all the way there behind Robert Marion Smith, her last master, and his caravan.

Here’s an excerpt from an article that tells the rest of Mason’s story:

“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.”

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

Thanks to the court in California approving Mason’s petition for freedom in 1856, she was able to become an exemplar of what liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility can lead to under the most challenging of circumstances. When I’m feeling like things are less than ideal today, I’ll be thinking of Biddy Mason and trying to follow her lead just a little.

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