The Story Behind Biddy Mason Park in L.A.
In a quiet outdoor space behind the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A., there’s a small memorial dedicated to one of the city’s most noted real estate entrepreneurs and philanthropists of times past – Bridget “Biddy” Mason.
Until my recent tour with Outdoor Afro as guided by the L.A. Conservancy, I’d never heard of Biddy Mason, and chances are that you haven’t either. If you haven’t, that’s all about to change today, because Biddy’s story is a remarkable one that’s integral to L.A.’s history, and I can only hope that in the spirit of celebrating black history, you’ll share her story with others.
Biddy was born a slave in 1818 – likely in Georgia or Mississippi – and she was given to Robert Smith and his wife as a wedding gift. When Smith decided to convert to Mormonism in 1847, he and his entire household moved to the Utah Territory where Brigham Young was building a Mormon community. During the cross country trek, Biddy’s job was to herd the cattle, cook, and to serve as a midwife and nanny.
In 1851 when Brigham Young sent a group of Mormons to SoCal, the Smith household – slaves and all – moved to San Bernardino. Biddy likely wasn’t aware that California was a free state, and taking full advantage, the Smiths refused to set their slaves free. When Biddy learned that her master was planning on moving his household to Texas, she tried to escape but was eventually caught. However, Biddy was able to petition a Los Angeles court for her freedom which was granted since she and Smith’s other slaves resided in a free state.
With her newfound freedom, Biddy moved to L.A. and found a job as a nurse and a midwife. Her frugality helped her to save quite a bit of money, and 10 years after gaining her freedom, she became one of the first black women to own land in L.A. when she bought a plot on Spring Street (presently downtown L.A.) for $250. She lived at 331 Spring Street for 25 years from 1866 to 1891.
Biddy continued to make smart decisions with her money and property, and in 1884, she sold a piece of her land for $1500 and rented out the remainder for commercial purposes. Eventually, she amassed a fortune of $300,000, and at one point, her grandson, Robert Curry Owens who was a politician and real estate developer, was the richest black American in L.A.
Biddy was passionate about philanthropy and she generously gave to charities, provided food and shelter for the needy, and visited inmates in prison. In 1872, Biddy became one of the founding members of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (better known as FAME – a church I attended regularly in high school) which is the city’s first black church.
Although Biddy was buried in an unmarked grave at a cemetery in Boyle Heights when she died in 1891, in 1988, a marked tombstone was unveiled for her during a ceremony attended by then Mayor Tom Bradley and thousands of members of FAME.
Today, November 16 is known as Biddy Mason Day although many people likely aren’t aware. So let’s do our part to share Biddy’s phenomenal story!
Biddy Mason's story is a remarkable one that’s integral to L.A.’s history! #BHM Click To Tweet
And if you’re ever in L.A., I’d encourage you to go check out Biddy Mason Park, a memorial to one of L.A.’s leading entrepreneurs and philanthropists!
Biddy Mason Park
304 S. Broadway (Bradbury Building)
Los Angeles, CA 90013
*The park is between Broadway + Spring Streets at 3rd St.