Biddy Mason Black Philanthropist Pre-1900s

Here’s the story of an extraordinary Black woman philanthropist who died in the late 1890s.

Biddy Mason was born a slave on a Georgia plantation in 1818. In 1847 her master, Robert Marion Smith, converted to Mormonism and moved his family, via wagon train, to Salt Lake City, Utah.  The 2,000 mile trip took seven months and Biddy walked the entire distance carrying one children while her other two walked beside her.  Along the way Biddy was responsible for preparing meals, herding the cattle and midwifery.

Years later Smith moved his family and slaves to a Mormon community in California.  After he learned he was in a free state and therefore could not legally own slaves, he departed for Texas where slavery was legal.  En route he was stopped by a posse of free Blacks who rescued Biddy and returned her to California with her three children where they were officially freed in 1856.

Biddy worked as a midwife for a physician in LA.  By 1866 she was known to have delivered hundreds of babies and nursed many patients back to health.  She even risked her life to tend to those with small pox during an epidemic.

Ten years after she was freed, she paid $250 for two parcels of land with money that she had saved.  She didn’t immediately live on her land, instead Biddy rented a home where she established the First African American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.  At some point she had a two-story brick building built on one of her properties.  She is believed to be the first Black female home owner.

By 1884 Biddy had sold some of her property for $1,500 and over the years amassed a fortune of almost $300,000.  By today’s standard that would have made her a millionaire.  That same year she had a local grocery store give free food to LA flood victims, regardless of race.  She picked up the tab.

Her home became a safe haven for homeless and others in need of help.  It later housed the church she founded which provided a food bank and day care service.

Her savvy real estate investments helped finance 11 convalescent homes, schools, and many charities.  In addition to feeding the line of people who showed up on her door step daily, she transported home-cooked meals to prisoners.

Biddy died in 1891 and in 1988, Tom Bradley, the mayor of LA, unveiled a tombstone to mark her previously unmarked grave.  A year later the city unveiled a memorial at Biddy Mason Park.


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