1818 – 1891
When freed, this formerly enslaved person advanced the tradition of philanthropy and volunteerism
Born into slavery in Georgia, Biddy Mason, at age 18, was a wedding gift to Robert Marion Smith and his bride. With her three young children, the youngest on her back, she walked behind her master’s wagon train for seven months as they moved to Salt Lake City. En-route she herded cattle, cared for the Smith children, and served as midwife to women and livestock. Three years later, they trekked through mountains and deserts to San Bernardino, then to Los Angeles, arriving in 1855. California had been admitted into the union as a free state even though there was strong sentiment to the contrary. The law specified that any enslaved person brought into the state was automatically free unless the formerly enslaved person voluntarily returned to a state where slavery was legal. A black businessman, Robert Owens, alerted the local sheriff to the presence of slaves; he placed Smith’s enslaved people in the jail for protection until the court ruled, in 1856, that they were “entitled to their freedom and are free forever.”
There would not be a social agency in Los Angeles until later that year (when the Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed) and the Owens family took in the Masons. One of the city’s four physicians offered Mason work as a midwife and nurse. By 1866 she had delivered hundreds of babies and nursed many people through a smallpox epidemic. She had saved almost all her earnings, invested in property and became wealthy. The house she built for herself became a haven for homeless people and others who needed help, as well as the locus for the First African American Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first black congregation.
In a time that did not yet know the terms “social work” or “social welfare” and when Los Angeles had only a handful of black residents, Biddy Mason carried out many charitable works and was a generous volunteer without regard to the ethnicity of the needy person. She packed food baskets and took them to the jail, where she brought hope to prisoners. She cared for people who were sick, especially during the frequent devastating epidemics that marked the growing city. When a rainstorm in 1884 turned the Los Angeles River into a raging torrent sweeping away homes and leaving many with nothing, she placed a standing order at a grocery store to give free food to any flood victims, black or white, who needed it. Her legacy of generosity-in the form of gifts of time and money-lives on in the spirit of volunteering and philanthropy.