Biddy Mason, Real Estate Tycoon
I often prowl around on elusive websites searching for women of character upon which to build my heroines. While I was searching for great ladies in the wild west who were not school teachers or reporters or ladies of the evening, I stumbled across a fascinating woman. Allow me to introduce you to Biddy Mason.
Bridget (Biddy) Mason was born into slavery in Hancock County, GA in 1818. She was separated from her parents and sold several times before she was given as a gift to Robert Smith and his bride as a wedding present from his uncle. Smith moved his wife and slaves from Georgia to Mississippi.
In Mississippi, Smith embraced the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and the family converted to the faith. Even though members of the church were encouraged to free their slaves, he refused to do so. The Smith household later migrated with other Mormons to Salt Lake Valley in Utah. Bridget walked 1,700 miles behind the 300-wagon train where she was responsible for cooking the meals, caring for the cattle, serving as midwife and caring for her three young girls, who had been fathered by Mr. Smith. The journey took seven long months.
Later, the Smith household followed Brigham Young’s lead and moved to San Bernardino. California at that time was a free state and any slave residing there was free, but Biddy had no education and had no knowledge of her rights.
When Robert Smith decided he wanted to move to Texas and sell his slaves there in order to make some money, Biddy rebelled, and tried to run away with a group of other slaves, on the advice of Charles Owens, who was courting Biddy’s eldest daughter. Smith caught up to them, but the sheriff in Los Angeles organized a posse and took the slaves into protective custody. Biddy petitioned the courts for her freedom and was interviewed by the judge presiding over the case, since she couldn’t testify in court. Robert Smith claimed his slaves were members of the family and therefore didn’t qualify for freedom. The judge sided with Biddy and granted her freedom as a resident of a free state in 1856, as well as the freedom of her three daughters, Ellen, Ann and Harriet, along with ten other African-American women and children.
Biddy became well-regarded as a nurse and midwife, becoming competent in the use of herbal remedies. For her work, she was paid $2.50 per day, which was quite a good wage in her day, and saved her pennies until she could buy two lots on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She built a house for herself on one parcel, on the other she erected some small houses, which she rented out and continued to do so for the next 18 years. She bought more land on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which soon became prime real estate. Her wealth grew over time to a fortune of nearly $300,000 ($6 million in today’s dollars), which she lavished on charitable organizations and which also enabled her to support her extended family. As a result of her shrewd investments, she became the wealthiest African-American woman in Los Angeles in the late 1800s. She made certain her children were educated, even though she could only sign documents with an “X.”
She founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, CA, the first black church in Los Angeles. She donated the land for the church, which is now the site of Biddy Mason Park, a city park in downtown Los Angeles.
But perhaps the best memorial to Biddy Mason is her own words, remembered by her great-granddaughter Gladys, decades after her death:
If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come of it. The open hand is blessed, for it gives abundance, even as it receives.
There are several books on the life of Biddy Mason available for purchase. View the complete list here: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=biddy+mason&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Abiddy+mason
Becky Lower appreciates strong female characters in her life and in her writing. She broke ground herself by becoming the first female junior account executive at a major advertising agency in Detroit, MI in the late 1960s. Even though she thought she’d reached a milestone, nothing compares to the life and accomplishments of Biddy Mason. Now she writes about other young ladies who defy convention on their way to their happy-ever-afters. A complete list of her books is available here: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=becky+lower