For nearly 100 years, one of Los Angeles’ first Black real estate moguls sat in an unmarked grave forgotten and unacknowledged.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a Black woman who was born into slavery in rural Georgia in 1818, became one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest women by the time of her death in 1891.
Over the course of her life, Mason won her freedom in a California courtroom, became a pioneer for Black nurses, amassed a $300,000 fortune as a businesswoman and purchased a $250 plot of land at 331 Spring Street at a time when many African Americans were still considered property, according to historians.
It was on that land where Mason built her first house and helped to establish the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first Black congregation in 1872. A devoted mother, Mason also raised three girls, two of which were fathered by her slave master.
“Biddy Mason has had a significant impact on the Los Angeles Black community,” said Tyree Boyd-Pates, a professor and history curator at the California African American Museum. “Biddy Mason’s lasting legacy serves as reminder of the resilience and fortitude of Black men and women who serve as pioneers, as well as entrepreneurs. Without her contributions, Los Angeles wouldn’t what it is today.”
Yet it wasn’t until 1988 that Mason received a proper headstone from city officials and members of FAME Church at her Evergreen Cemetery grave in Boyle Heights. These days, Mason is known to some as “the grandmother of Los Angeles.”
Like many of history’s most resilient Black women, Mason faded into obscurity over time.
America’s specific brand of racism and sexism may have been a contributing factor into her forgotten legacy, according to experts.
“As a Black woman, there is no doubt that Biddy Mason confronted a specific brand of racism and sexism that one can only fathom,” said Boyd-Pates. “Before freedom, Biddy was responsible for herding cattle, fixing meals, and acting as a nurse or midwife to anyone who needed her during her owner’s voyage west. Her desire to free herself and her family serves as an exemplar of her fortitude.”
The 20th century resurgence and acknowledgement of her legacy should inspire Black people today, especially Black women, according to Boyd-Pates. Mason represents the tenacity, compassion and resourcefulness of Black womanhood.
“Biddy Mason’s legacy provides an inspirational blueprint of entrepreneurship and economic empowerment for this generation, “Boyd-Pates said. “Her philanthropic efforts created institutions that are still thriving today. And if we use that same approach to the ways we invest our money in our community, we can see new institutions that will stand the test of time.”
Angelenos who are interested in learning more about Mason and her story can check out the Biddy Mason Park at Broadway Street and Spring Street, between 3rd Street and 4th Street in downtown Los Angeles.
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