A Woman to Know: Biddy Mason

Pioneers all praise her life of good deeds. — lawyer John W. Kemp

(image via Wikimedia Commons)


In 1847, after 29 years living in slavery, Bridget Mason walked from Mississippi to California. Her owner, Robert Marion Smith, made a crucial mistake in migrating his entire household out West — in 1851, when California entered the Union as a free state, Bridget and his other slaves were finally allowed to leave slavery. Smith fought their emancipation, but in 1856, Bridget turned to another former slave for help.

John W. Kemp, a free man who worked as a lawyer, advocated for Biddy and her daughters, eventually winning them emancipation in 1856. From there, Bridget built a life for herself in Los Angeles. She worked domestic jobs and diligently saved her money, eventually buying a $250 plot on Spring Street — in the process becoming one of the first black women to ever own property in California.

After developing a successful real estate and developing business, Bridget gave back to the L.A. community that had helped her: she founded the local branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, volunteered in the soup kitchen, visited inmates in prison and donated to local causes. The neighborhood remembered her as "Aunt Biddy." As one historian wrote, "Without her contributions, Los Angeles wouldn't be what it is today."

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