At the age of 42, Bridget Mason won a court case in California that freed her and her daughters from slavery. She went on to become a California real estate developer and a prolific philanthropist. She also funded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. That church stands to this day and its 19,000 members share in her legacy.
Welcome to Brain Junk. I’m Amy Barton and I’m Trace Kerr and it’s time for a Brain Storm.
TK: So one thing I don’t normally do is research people. I don’t know why I’m, I’m a big like animal science kind of super freak. And so, I was talking to Zoe and she was like, mom, you need to talk about some amazing women. So great. I went looking and I found Bridget “Biddy” Mason.
AB: I had a grandma named Bitty.
TK: You did?
AB: Step grandma.
TK: Oh, well I don’t think she was probably born in 1818.
AB: That does not apply to this. No, she was not. As kids, we thought she was, but no, she was not.
TK: You’re like, she’s ancient. Well, Biddy Mason. She was a slave. She was sold from family to family in Georgia and South Carolina before being owned by a family of Mormon. Converts.
TK: Yup. Who decided to move their home from a plantation in Mississippi to Utah territory. So this is when she was 30 that this happened. She was still a slave and she was given the job of hurding her owner’s cattle on this 1700 mile trek behind a 300 wagon caravan to the new homestead
AB: That’s so far. I mean, just so many logistical questions about that choice.
TK: This woman’s life is just amazing. They moved to Utah territory when she was 30 in 1851 when Betty was 33, the household moved again to San Bernardino, California.
AB: Oh my word.
TK: Well, and here’s the crazy thing. Uh, in 1850, California became a free state, no slavery. It’s suspected that she did not know at the time that it was a free state and they moved there and then not long after they moved, they’re fearful that he would lose his slaves. Bitties owner moved them to Texas.
AB: Oh my word. That poor woman, the thousands of miles that she probably walk.
TK: But here’s what’s, so here’s where her life begins to turn around and everything changes. Well, help by members of the black community, most particularly by a young man who was interested in marrying one of her daughters. In 1856, she petitioned the court and won freedom for herself and her daughters in total 13 members of her extended family.
And she moved them all to Los Angeles and worked as a midwife. After 10 years of hard work and savings, she bought a site on Spring Street in Los Angeles for $250 becoming one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. That’s a big deal. The property ownership, huge deal. I mean, think about it. And that was, you know, 1860s she managed to save $250 it was a lot of money.
AB: Yeah. I’m wondering about the, I’ve heard it’s not easy to figure out the math difference from then to today, but what it was worth, what was probably, it was worth a lot.
TK: Yeah. So you’d think, okay, so here’s someone who’s in her mid forties you know, and this is in the late 1800’s.
AB: What’s life expectancy like?
Well, in 1884 at the age of 66 she sold a parcel of land because she continued to purchase land…
AB: Smart lady!
TK: for $1,500 and she built a commercial building with rentals in it.
AB: Oh, nice man.
TK: Her business skills were so cool that she accumulated a fortune of almost $300,000
AB: Holy cow. That is big.
TK: I know. In her lifetime.
TK: And wait, there’s more. Bridget Mason was the founding member of the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872 she gave to charities. She visited inmates. And so here’s the thing that really roasted my cookies. So she died January 5th, 1891 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
TK: Yeah. Well, because she was black.
TK: But in 1988 the city placed a tombstone on her grave to celebrate her amazing achievements. You know, the community was there and family members were there and all sorts of stuff. So…
AB: That’s excellent. That’s a great thing.
TK: It was excellent. I am glad to hear. I ws thinking what would you do coming from the background that she came from with your $300,000 I’m like, should she put in fire poles in her home and swimming pools in the basement? No. She started, a church kept
TK: And she kept reinvesting it in the community. It was all about buildings that people could live in and places people could rent. And the prison inmate thing came up on multiple websites talking about how she would go, it almost seemed like weekly to visit, make sure that they were getting adequate food, all this kind of stuff. Yeah.
AB: Wow. That’s excellent.
TK: So that’s Bridget bitty mason pillar of the community.
AB: Yeah. I wonder if any of the infrastructure that she created still exists. That’s pretty old.
TK: Probably would, but I believe the church is still there.
AB: You can look now folks. You have the Internet. There you go. Brain Junk is on the Internet. We’re on Facebook and Instagram as Brain Junk Podcast, and you can find us on Twitter as @mybrainjunk. Trace and I will catch you next time when we share more of everything you never knew. You wanted to know. And I guarantee you will not be bored.
Thank you to the African American registry for this information. https://aaregistry.org/story/from-slavery-to-entrepreneur-biddy-mason/