Historical stories of Black wealth tend to be few and far between. Most know of the story of the self-made millionaire Madame C.J. Walker, and amazing as that story is, it seems to be the only mainstream historical story about Black women and wealth. Walker’s story is often portrayed as the exception to the rule — the one unique story out of 100+ years of African American history. Yet, she is not the only Black woman to defeat the odds and gain capital.
Bridget Mason, known as Biddy Mason, is a Black woman who, at one point in time, was one of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles, California. Her life is one of the greatest examples of perseverance and the power of community.
Biddy Mason’s journey from enslavement to freedom
Born into slavery on a plantation in Hancock County, Georgia, on August 15, 1818, Mason took on various jobs and responsibilities. She was a house servant, cattle herder, midwife, and plantation worker. Yet, despite her many roles, she never earned the full respect she deserved. When her enslavers moved across the country to California, Mason had to walk behind the caravan for seven months.
As treacherous as the journey was, it would ultimately be the stepping stone to her freedom. When Mason and her three children arrived in California, it was declared a free state, meaning any enslaved person could become free upon entering the state.
However, Mason didn’t gain her own and her family’s freedom immediately since their enslaver denied them their freedom and kept their imprisonment a secret. Fortunately, Mason met and often spoke with freed Black people who informed her that she could be free.
It was a turn of events that catapulted Mason into taking action. When Mason’s enslaver wanted to move to Texas, she knew that she would never have a chance for freedom if she followed.
Thus, Mason fought for her freedom by suing her enslaver in the 1856 court case Mason v. Smith. Unable to attend court, she had representation during her court date. Different sources tell how this day passed, but the judge presiding over her case took the time to meet with Mason privately to hear her story. Shortly after, the judge granted Mason and her family their freedom.
How Biddy Mason gained her wealth
As a free woman, Mason did not take this opportunity for granted. Because of her midwife experience, she studied nursing and became a midwife and nurse to Dr. John Strother Griffin, a Los Angeles physician. She assisted hundreds of mothers of different races and social classes through her work. She was even renowned for her herbal remedies.
In addition to her healing work, she focused on saving money and living frugally. After years of hard work and savings, she had enough money to buy property in Los Angeles. She built small homes and rented them out to establish an additional income source. She did this for 18 years, and at 66, she sold part of her land and built a commercial building where she lived on the second floor with her family and rented out the rooms on the ground floor.
Throughout her lifetime, she became a real estate mogul, continuously buying different properties that increased in value over time. In the early 1890s, Mason’s properties were only one block from the financial district in Los Angeles. Over her lifetime, she accumulated around $300,000 and was at one point the wealthiest African-American woman in Los Angeles.
Leaving a legacy
What is more inspiring than how Mason gained her wealth is what she did with her money. Mason believed in giving back to the community. It was in 1872 that she and Charles Owen, her son-in-law, founded and financed the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In addition to founding the church, she helped develop an elementary school for Black children and a traveler’s aid center. Mason, also known as Grandma Mason, gave back to the community until she passed away on January 15,1891. She was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.
Nearly a century after her death, her contributions to the Los Angeles community were recognized when she was given an official tombstone during a ceremony honoring her life. In addition, November 16, 1989, was declared National Biddy Mason day, and in her honor, a memorial wall was built on Spring street in Los Angeles.
In 2013 the Biddy Madison Foundation was established to help serve the foster youth in the community. Her story continues to be shared with children in the book Biddy Mason Speaks Up by Arisa White and Laura Atkins.
Madison was a hard-working and selfless woman who never stopped fighting for what she deserved. Her legacy of wealth and kindness serves as an inspiration to everyone.
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Kiersten is a freelance writer and coach. As a writer, she has written for Travel Noire, Passion Passport, BAUCE mag, and various travel and lifestyle blogs. As a writer, her goal is to write content that inspires others to take action. As a coach, her goal is to empower women to be their most authentic selves. In her free time, you can find her dancing to any song any where.