Biddy Mason was a Los Angeles real estate mogul, before the term was even invented. Mason was born into slavery in the year 1818, in Georgia. By the time she died in 1891 she’d amassed a fortune of $300,000 (many millions today) and owned a great deal of property in what is now the heart of Los Angeles. Mason’s improbable life journey is one that few know but we all most certainly should.
Mormonism, ironically, had as much to do with Mason’s success as anything else. By the time Mason was a young adult, she was owned by a Mormon family in Mississippi, the Smiths. Like many other Mormons, the Smiths ventured to the “promised land” of Salt Lake City. Mr. Smith later joined other Mormons and migrated to Southern California. Although the new California constitution technically made provisions for freedom, Mason and her children were essentially still, for all practical purposes, enslaved. It was when Smith attempted to take Mason and her children back to Texas, however, that other parties got involved. Her case for freedom eventually made its way to the courts, where she was ultimately declared free, in January of 1856.
Now free, Mason was able to pursue business and other ventures. She had developed her skills as a midwife and nurse while enslaved, primarily caring for her captor’s sickly wife. As a free woman she worked as a nurse and midwife, delivering hundreds of babies. Even as a successful career woman, however, she was careful to always keep handy the papers that granted her freedom — California wasn’t as free as some would like to imagine. By 1866 Mason had saved enough to buy her first property, which was kept in her family until the Great Depression. In the years following Mason would buy, sell and buy many properties. She was a prominent woman of business and also a noted philanthropist, in Los Angeles.
Mason was one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles when she died. Most of her properties were given to her grandson, Robert, who would go on to become the wealthiest Black man in Los Angeles County. Biddy Mason is yet another example of the mysterious strength, genius and perseverance of Black women, against all odds. Black moguls aren’t new — Biddy Mason is just a reminder that we’ve been building empires.