Biddy Mason remains one of the great untold stories of Los Angeles, although folks are starting to find out about her. She’s shown up in a couple of the Old Los Angeles books. I mean, how could I resist adding her to the cast? A former slave, she was one of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles. She bought a lot of real estate, which she amassed while working as a mid-wife and a nurse.
I was thrilled when I found out there was actually a memorial park with a monument of her life. It took me some weeks to get to that part of downtown, but I finally did earlier this year. As I mentioned earlier this month, I love walking. So, when I found myself in downtown Los Angeles on another errand, I figured I’d get some more walking in by finding the Biddy Mason Memorial.
I have to say, it’s a little hard to find. The address is 333 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. The problem is, when I went down there, I looked for a park and couldn’t find one. That’s because the park is in an alcove that you access through a building at 333 S. Spring St.
It is a lovely little oasis of calm in the middle of a busy urban area, and the wall brings this remarkable woman to life.
The life of Biddy Mason
She was born in Georgia, probably in 1818, and as a slave, got moved around several times before she landed in Mississippi in the hands of one Robert M. Smith. Smith became a Mormon and moved his family and slaves, including Biddy, to first Utah, then California, settling in San Bernardino in 1851. California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850. But that didn’t mean people like Smith didn’t bring their slaves with them and settle here. The slaves often didn’t know any better.
Apparently, in 1856, Smith made his mistake and tried to take Biddy to Texas to sell her there, claiming that she wanted to go. Only Biddy, who did not want to be separated from her daughters, managed to sue Smith for her freedom. This in a time when Blacks and Asians, and presumably women, could not testify in court, even on their own behalf, against a White man. The court sided with Biddy and she won her freedom and that of her daughters. She eventually came to Los Angeles. There she saved the money she earned mid-wiving and nursing, and bought her first property, a homestead near the location of the park in 1866.
Mrs. Mason not only kept buying property, she became quite a philanthropist and helped start the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles in 1872. The church is still around, which you can’t say for a lot of churches around here. She also started the first elementary school for Black children around that time.
Biddy Mason died in January 1891 at the age of 72. Some of her descendants still live in Los Angeles.
The wall? Well, it tells this story with artifacts and images. I highly recommend a visit.