This course paper was submitted by Susan M. Ruddick and Mary-Beth Welch, enrolled in Professor Dolores Hayden’s course titled Los Angeles Place Making, at the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, February 1984.  It represents the best research on Biddy Mason at that time.  A copy of the paper was archived in the SOS! Files held by the USC Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.


The Story of Biddy Mason



Biddy Mason was one of the founding leaders of the black community in the city of Los Angeles, and remains a symbol for the black community and its business as well as philanthropic activities. (See Plate 1). Although exceptional in and of herself, we also see Biddy Mason’s life as a vehicle for tracing the development of the black community in Los Angeles for the years between the mid-1850’s and the mid-1890’s. When she arrived in Los Angeles as a slave there were 12 blacks living there1. When she died, as a successful businesswoman and philanthropist, the community of blacks had expanded to 1,2582. Biddy Mason left an enormous legacy as a woman who “made good” in the real estate market, and who “did good” by helping others less fortunate, particularly those “of her own colour”. She did this work as an individual, but it is also evident that as a founder and on-going benefactor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (the first black church in Los Angeles), this work was done as part of community works with the church as the center of that community.

In order to trace Biddy Mason’s development in Los Angeles, particularly as part of the emerging black community, we will discuss how Mason grew from a slave to a wealthy philanthropist along with the once Spanish pueblo.

Section Two: How She Got to Los Angeles

While most sources generally confirm that Biddy Mason was born August 15, 1818 in Hancock county Georgia there are varied account of her early years, the condition of her enslavement, and the events surrounding her journey to California3. Perhaps the most colorful account, Charlotta Bass’ FOURTY YEARS: MEMOIRS FROM THE PAGES OF A NEWSPAPER claims that she made a successful escape from slavery while still very young and, making friends with Indians in Missouri met and married an Indian chief, subsequently bearing three daughters. Of her journey to California, it is told that she was discovered by Mormons who planned to capture Mason and sell her back into slavery in Texas. Upon learning of this scheme, Mason sought out the leader of a caravan heading west and was taken on to herd sheep4.

More conservative accounts argue that Mason was born on the plantation of Robert Smith who maintained several slaves including Mason and her three daughters, and brought them on the trek to California, which began “in the 1840’s”. In the early years before the journey Mason spent much of her time caring for Smith’s wife who was chronically ill5.

The search for a better climate suited to his wife’s constitution and later, the lure of gold, motivated Smith to sell his plantation and make successive moves west. A convert to the Mormon faith, in the 1840’s Smith joined up with a huge wagon train heading to Salt Lake City. In this account, Mason also herded sheep behind the wagon train – some 300 sheep belonging to Robert Smith. Because of her ability in this arduous task Mason was reported to be “a woman of masculine strength”6. In addition to this Mason had to care for her three young daughters – Ellen, Harriet and Ann – the first born when Mason was twenty-one and the last when she was thirty. (It is not clear whether her children were infants or helpmates on the journey west, but it is most likely that they were both). While the trek eventually ended in California, Smith is reported to have spent four years in Mississippi and another four years in Utah before arriving in California in 18517.

There are two accounts of the events leading to Mason’s freedom. The first is that Smith first settled in San Bernardino County in 18518. Curiously enough, San Bernardino was one of several small communities in California populated largely by blacks, which had grown out of the migration of free slaves to the area. Others included Abila, Allensworth, Bowles, Victoriaville, Tulare, and Fresno9. As Smith grew wary of the outcome of the Civil War and its implication for slavery he planned to move to Texas, which was still a slave state. In this first account, the Mungen account, Mrs. Rowan, a prominent member of the black community of San Bernardino, alerted the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, Frank Dewitt. Dewitt served a habeas corpus on the Smith party while there were stopped in Santa Monica Canyon for supplies and rations. Robert Owens is said to have assisted the Sheriff in these arrests. In a second account, Smith and his camp were discovered by a young black boy <sic> who notified his father who then notified the sheriff. Dewitt, accompanied by this man and several other blacks “swooped down on the camp where the slaves were held and rescued them”10.

Court proceedings followed on January 19, 1856, presided over by Judge Benjamin Hays. At this trial, Smith testified that while he intended to move to Texas, he did not intend to return Mason and the others to slavery, arguing “they had already known that they were not slaves but rather they had consented upon their own will to go to travel to the slave state of Texas”11. This contrasts sharply with Mason’s own testimony, later published in the Los Angeles Star in which she stated “I have always done what I have been told to do. I feared this trip to Texas since I first heard of it. Mr. Smith told me that I would be just as free in Texas as here”12. Just how free she imaged that was is not entirely clear. The freedom papers documenting the case noted that of the slaves “none of said persons could read or write and are entirely ignorant of the laws of California”13. However, following this trail, Mason requested a copy of the legal document granting her freedom. (see Plate 2).

The prospect of settling in Los Angeles was no doubt one of conflict for Mason. Although California was admitted as a free state in 1850, Southern California loyalties to the anti-slavery position were not certain, and there was intense debate around that and other economic and political issues leading to the possible division of California into two states14.

Secondly, there were bounty hunters that roamed through the state returning slaves to their former owners, an illegal yet prevalent activity15. In fact, some accounts argue that slavery was practiced in California until 187016. In addition, Los Angeles was not exactly the sleepy pueblo town portrayed in many booster-ilk travelers’ accounts. One traveler, even while recounting the virtues of Los Angeles in the seventies, recalled that “the drifting of the failures and malcontents down from the northern gold fields during the fifties gave Los Angeles its darkest hour. Only the hour lasted twenty years”17. Lynchings were as common as hangings, and it was only news when there wasn’t a killing to be reported that week18. Obviously, Los Angeles was not an idyllic place for a single mother to be bringing up a family.

In 1850, there were only twelve blacks living in Los Angeles. In other areas of Southern California there were already pockets of black communities, most notably the black community of former slaves in San Bernardino. By choosing to live in Los Angeles, she would be dependant upon the goodwill of its white citizens such as Dr. Griffin who offered her a position as a nurse-midwife19. She was also taken in by the prominent negro resident of Los Angeles, Robert Owens, a livery stableman who had moved to Los Angeles with his family in 185220. (See Plate 3 which shows Mason, seated on the left on the porch of the Owen’s residence). Los Angeles in 1850 was peopled predominantly by Californians, though “gringos” were quickly gaining political and economic control21. In fact when Biddy Mason’s owner Robert Smith camped in the Santa Monica Canyon outside of Los Angeles in 1856, Los Angeles was little more than a Mexican town22. (See Plate 4). Most of the houses were adobe, comparatively few were of wood and none were of brick. (See Plate 5). The streets were crooked and unpaved23. (See Plates 6 & 7). Although under American domination since 1846, and part of the United States territory in 1849, its population grew little during the next two decades, because most of the emigration was to the north to participate in the gold rush of ‘4924. During those two decades, the first telegraph line arrived in 1860, the first railroad was built in 1869 and then in 1876 Los Angeles became linked to a transcontinental railway line25.

Because Los Angeles had, previous to the American Conquest, been held in common as a Spanish pueblo, the city in 1849 had an enormous amount of land to sell, but no money in its coffers. In order to proceed in these real estate sales however, Los Angeles needed a city map showing a survey of the parcels in the area. Up until this time, mapping in Los Angeles was an imprecise art at best26. An army lieutenant by the name of O.C. Ord was hired by the city for the surveying job. The map when finished, was considered a pretty map, but it lacked such detail as street width, block and lot dimensions, and gave only marginal explanation. (See Plate 8). The wooden stakes set out to mark the subdivisions were said to be of more use to tie a burro than to serve as a surveyor’s tool. In a report to the city council in 1870, the map was declared to be “utterly as useless to the survey as so much waste paper”27. Nevertheless, Ord’s survey did serve as the base for Los Angeles early land sales which resulted in Los Angeles first land boom in 1849. After its first sales of land, Los Angeles had $2,500 in its treasury. The Ord’s survey continued to be the reference for land sales until it was recopied in 1872 by Lothan Seebold the county surveyor28.

Section Three: The Early Black Community in Los Angeles

The status of the black community at the time of Biddy’s arrival in Los Angeles was a complicated one. We find according to the 1850 Census of Los Angeles several blacks who lived in the homes of white people29. Whether or not they were indentured is difficult to ascertain, but only one black in 1850 is listed in a separate residence. This was Peter Biggs, who ran a barber shop on Main Street near Bella Union Hotel30.

In 1850, the total black population in California was 962. The majority lived in counties near the gold mines where they worked at night to earn enough to buy their freedom31. In Los Angeles the twelve blacks constituted only a small portion of the population – 0.7%. By 1860, the number of blacks grew slightly to 66 (1.5%) and by 1870 to 93 (1.6%). By 1890, at the time of Biddy Mason’s death the black community had grown to 1,25832.

There was evident racial residential segregation of Indians, Mexicans (called “Sonorans”), Californians and Chinese, but until the 1800’s there is no early evident racial segregation of blacks. Possibly the hostility against the larger non-white populations, particularly the Chinese may have shunted away racial hostility from the small black population for a while. However, there were limited work opportunities for blacks. An account given by William Ballard, one of the few “old timers” of black Los Angeles whose oral history was recorded in the 1930’s noted “in 1848, at the age of seventeen, my father came to Los Angeles. I was born in 1862… The negroes who came here in those days were very poor. Some did odd jobs and many farmed. They lived everywhere, as there was no special districts then”33. The type of work found by Biddy Mason and her friends the Owens reflected the opportunities of the time.

The negro male engaged in farming, transporting people and goods, shoeing horses. A few operated business establishments on a small scale such as barber shop, groceries, stores, and restaurants. The negro women either assisted on the farm or found employment in the homes of the ever increasing number of white who could afford domestic servants or an untrained nurse of midwife34.

The principal industry in Los Angeles was the production of wine and brandy35. Some authors argue that the main industry was the consumption of alcohol. In 1872, there were sixty-two drinking saloons in the city36. Other industry include the manufacture of olive oil and mustard, and shipbuilding, with the new industry including two flour mills, several saw mills, planning mills, woolen spinning mills, an ice-plant, shoemakers, tailors, an iron foundry, stove-manufacturing, tile manufacturing and the manufacture of artificial stone37. The Europeans controlled the bulk of commerce especially the Irish and the Germans. The native Californians were largely in ranching, sheepherding, and the raising of vineyards and orange trees38. (See Plate 9 showing various types of activities in and around Los Angeles).

Section Four: Biddy Mason’s Development as a Freewoman

Of the early black settlers in Los Angeles, Robert Owens was a prominent figure, whose grandson was enlisted in the Los Angeles Times of 1909 as the wealthiest Negro in Los Angeles39. Upon her arrival to Los Angeles, Biddy Mason first stayed with the Owens family, and two years later her daughter married the son of Robert, Charles Owen40. Robert Owens came to Los Angeles in 1852, from Texas, with his wife Winnie Owens, and two daughters and one son: Sarah Jane, Martha and Charles respectively. Owens first made money by government contracts and general trade and later bought lots on San Pedro Street, where he opened a livery stable41.

In addition to the livery business, Robert amassed much property in and around the Los Angeles area. (See Plate 10. Owen’s houses are the two white structures in the distance on the extreme right.) His first purchase in 1854 was a fairly large tract of land from Obed Macy which was situated across the sanya and purchased for $1,750.0042. Subsequent purchases included a tract along the western bank of the Los Angeles River measuring 360 yards by 160 yards which he sold on July 6 1859 to John Behn for $450.00, land in El Monte which he bought from J.H. Carr on Oct. 10, 1859 for $300.00, and a block facing Crop Street which ran from Main Street to Los Angeles Street, purchased from the Methodist Episcopalian Church for $300.00 on April 9, 1864.43. Owens continued to purchase property throughout his lifetime and acquired several other properties in the city, including the block bounded by Olive, Charity, Sixth and Seventh Streets, which he acquired in 1868 for $500.00 from Ozro Childs44.  (See Plate 11 for extent of property development in 1888). Robert also bequeathed property to his son Charles two years after the marriage of Charles to Ellen Mason. This was a lot adjacent to Dr. Griffin’s land which he sold for the sum of $1.00 on June 4, 1860. The following day he sold the adjacent lot to W. Smart (perhaps a son-in-law) for the same amount45.

While Robert Owens was one of the first Blacks in Los Angeles to establish an independent residence and acquire property, accounts suggest that it was primarily Robert (who was the grandson of both Owens and Biddy Mason) who profited from real estate investments. Robert C. Owens began work in his youth as a manual laborer, working in the early 1870’s for J.S. Slauson as a ranch hand and later pedaling charcoal and driving a city sprinkler at San Pedro Harbor46. At the death of his father he and his brother, Henry, took charge of his livery stable, then located on Main near First, and at the death of Biddy Mason they moved this livery to Spring between Third and Fourth ... “ the property on Main having become too valuable to hold a livery stable47. (See Plate 12 showing the location of the stable in the rear of the Spring street property.) In 1890 Robert bought a lot and cottage for $7,200, which he sold in 1905 for $75,00048.

In addition to having the good fortune to stay with the Owens family in her early days, Mason managed to get work with Doctor John S. Griffin as a confinement nurse and midwife for $2.50 per day49. Griffin had both offices and residence located on Main Street and was listed as a physician and surgeon in the City Directories of the period50. Perhaps her leanings towards this profession developed in her early years with the Smiths when she spent much time caring for Robert Smith’s ailing wife. It is also known that “the older and more intelligent female slaves were delegated to attend the women in the quarters in childbirth”.51 Mason’s reputation as a midwife grew and one account notes that “she was in demand as a midwife and as such brought into the world many of the children of the early pioneer families”52. Some twenty-seven years after she began work with Dr. Griffin, it appears that Mason set up practice on her own. In the City Directory of 1883-1884 Mason is listed independently as a sick nurse residing at 108 Fort Street53.

Dr. Griffin appears to have been a prominent figure in the city himself, as well as a shrewd investor in real estate and other areas. In 1868, Griffin, along with Beaudry Lazure, engineered a thirty year contract to sell water to the city, paying $400.00 a month for this right. When this contract expired, they sold the rights back to the city for $200 million. Griffin also owned land in East Los Angeles which was said to have been “opened for development” by himself and Mr. Downey, the ex-governor54. (See Plate 13 for the location of the tracts).

In addition to her work as a nurse, Mason became renowned for her astute property purchases in the City of Los Angeles. In some accounts, Mason is depicted as having a “mania” for acquisition of property which she passed on to her daughters55. In another Griffin is described as “the shrewd real estate investor” who “<influenced> Biddy to invest her $250.00 in her first two downtown lots” but there is no record of this56. Nor does Mason appear to be the real estate shark that some accounts portray her as. Rather it appears that she acquired property as a security for herself and her family and as a means of establishing, at last, a permanent settlement.

In 1866, when Mason was fourty-eight years old, she made her first purchase from Mr. Buffun for the sum of $250.00. This was ten years after he establishment in Los Angeles as a free person. This lot is set out in the Ords Survey as being lots three and eight on block number seven – lying between 3rd and 4th and Spring and Fort in approximately the middle of the block57. (See Plate 8: Ord’s Survey and Plate 9). In 1868, when she was fifty she purchased a site even further out of town the north half of lots two and seven of block twenty, and lots three and eight of the same block which was bounded by Olive and Charity Streets, from Charles Owens and Martha Hall for $37558. (See Plates 8 & 9).

Mason’s intentions for the property on South Spring were clear. After purchasing it, she told her children that “this was to remain their homestead, and it mattered not what their circumstances, they were always to retain this homestead”59. This property she improved with a two storey building faced in brick on the first floor and wood on the second and housing storerooms on the lower floor and living rooms on the upper, which she occupied. (See Plate 14. Mason’s properties appear in the lower right as they were in 1900). The storerooms later became quite valuable rental property when business moved south of First Street60. Records in the City Directories indicate that this was her primary residence, where she was listed for the period from 1878 to 1890. Other places of residence included 108 Fort Street, where she resided in 1883 and “First Street below Main” which was her home in 187261.

Not until 1867-1868 did Los Angeles begin to grow rapidly and show progress in erecting large, more expensive housing. “Fine buildings and substantial brick shops, hotels, schools, banks, factories, sprang up at this time as if by magic”62. Despite these early “booms”, in the 1870’s Los Angeles was still a little town of some 10,000 persons. The city itself changed a little in the twenty some years between its transformation from a pueblo to its beginning industrial and real estate development in the mid-seventies. Up until 1872, there wasn’t any need for a city directory, because “every resident of the embryo city of these days knew where every other person within its municipal bounds lived. Why go to a book to find what he already knew?”63. In addition, some streets were unnamed, all the houses unnumbered, and many of the inhabitants could not read, making a city directory rather useless. For the purposes of the directory, numbers were assigned for Main Streets, Spring Street, Eternity Street, and Bull Streets. However, the numbers on Main went only to Fourth, and on Sprint went from Main to Third street64. The streets themselves were unpaved, dusty in summer and muddy rivers during the rains65.

Business was confined to Aliso, Los Angeles Main and Spring Streets, and not much of it extended south of First Street66. Main Street was the most animated of the three principal streets and had the finest buildings. On it stood City Hall, the Commercial Bank and the Catholic Cathedral, built in 1877 at a cost of $80,000. Nearby were grocery stores with canned goods and fresh fruit vegetables67. Further down on Main Street the houses were poorer, most of them small wooden structures with tiny and often pleasant gardens68.

Spring Street, the second principal street of Los Angeles, opened right into Main Street near Temple Block. Running west, the street zigzagged between houses, and groves of olives, walnuts and oranges69.

The third and longest street was San Pedro, which began near the Calle De Los Negros with its dilapidated old house. It was dirtier and dustier than the others, and though broad at its beginning, gradually became narrower and at the lower end passed primarily through gardens. Between it and Main Street were some splendid orange groves70. The only residential district was on San Pedro and the west side of Main Street. The wealthier residents on Main Street owned through the block and faced their stables on Spring Street71.

The housing in Los Angeles of the 1870’s was constructed of wood, seldom of tile72. The Americans owned most of the houses and the land in the city. (That of the Californian was built of unbaked brick, clay and adobe.) The wooden houses were built usually of redwood, with white pine flooring, on shallow foundations. Small houses out in the country were frequently built directly on bare ground. From the outside these houses had a fairly good appearance. Those of the more prosperous families were ornamented with verandas covered with masses of flowers. Usually the paint was gray or graying yellow in colour.

Among the newer wooden houses many were built in duplicate and stood close together: several houses had simple vines trained over the porches. Frequently the verandas occupied one entire end of a house and covered a quarter of the lot73.

One account of Biddy Mason’s homestead property on Spring Street describes it as “between Third and Fourth Streets, located from Spring Street to Broadway. There was a ditch of water on the place and a willow fence running along the plat of ground which was considered quite out of town at that date, but which today is the most valuable piece of property in all of beautiful Los Agneles”74. (See Plate 15. Mason’s property is located on Spring which is the horizontal street in the distance). The “willow fence” referred to is no doubt a living tree fence which was at that time the prevalent type of “fence” indicating property lines in Los Angeles75. Accounts of the flora and fauna of the time speak of hills rich with the hue of flowers. In March, red, in April, blue, and in May the pure gold of California poppies. Though not an area rich with native trees, Mason might have encountered the California roble, the aliso, the sycamore, poplars, cottonwoods, and the California horsechestnut. In her garden, the fields surrounding her property and perhaps while walking through what was then known as Central Park, she probably often saw the ubiquitous ground squirrel as well as owls, gopher, the jumping rat, as well as varieties of hare and rabbit76.

Because Mason’s property was considered “out of town”, she may not have fronted on the private stables of the wealthy residents of Main Street. However, some of the businesses in  her area included the stable for the Nadeau Hotel, the first public school of Los Angeles (which was integrated) at Second and Spring, a blacksmith shop, the terminal for the stage coach, a windmill, some small shops, and chicken coops. There was a feed and fuel yard at Third and Spring and the “Round House” was a community resort where many city celebrations were held77.

Mason later sold the north half of the Spring Street property to K. H Jones and Charles M. Wright on January 2, 1875 for $1,500, and lot eight on the property bounded by Olive and Charity for $2,800 on April 7, 188478. But the remainder of the Spring Street property she intended to be kept as a permanent homestead. One years before her death in 1891, Mason left part of this land to her grandsons Robert and Henry Owens “in consideration of the sum of love and affection and ten dolalrs”79 (See Plate 16, photo of deed). The remainder she left to Robert Owens and his mother Ellen, with a life interest to her sister Harriet which was to revert to Robert and his mother upon her death. Throughout her adventures in real estate, Mason was still unable to write, and signed transactions with an x which albeit developed considerable flourish until age weakened her handwriting (See Plates 16, 17 & 18). In spite of this handicap, Mason always asked for copies of the deeds of sale, which demonstrates a certain astuteness on her part. At the time of her death Mason is said to have owned property at Third and Spring, Second and Broadway, Eighth and Hill and “many other valuable properties in downtown Los Angeles both on the east and west sides”80. However, records do not substantiate this claim.

After the death of Biddy Mason on January 16, 1891, Robert and Henry moved their livery from Main Street to Spring Street and later in 1905, Robert announced plans for a six storey structure to be built on this site, and to include a Biddy Mason Memorial Institute on the second floor, which would be given over to assisting black youth in finding employment. This organization was to be run through the help of the Tuskegee Institute, to which Robert had recently made a substantial donation81. Today none of these structures remain. Spring Street holds a parking lot which will soon house a state building. (See Plates 19 & 20). The center properties on Olive street house a parking lot and small nondescript structure of recent construction. The remainder of the block is crowded with highrise structures. (See Plate 21 showing the corner of Olive block from Pershing Square).

Biddy Mason, in addition to being known for her prudent dealings in real estate was most known and lover for her philanthropic work, particularly in “her own community”.  Her work that is best documented is that connected with the first A.M.E. Church. This was organized in her home on Spring between Third and Fourth Streets in 1872 when she was 54 years old. Although it is said that Biddy Mason helped not only negroes, but also white people and white churches, her activities in her “own” community are the best documented.

In her 60’s she aided the poor and unfortunate in the slum area and during the flood of the early 1880’s she opened an account at a small grocery store on 4th and Spring to be used by any family made homeless by the rains of the 1880’s82. One source states that she opened a day nursery for orphans, poor, and deserted children83.

Mason is also remembered for her frequent visits to the city prison where she most widely became known as “Grandma Mason”84. Many people came to her for aid, and in her later ailing years, her grandsons had to stand outside to turn people away who lined up at her door for assistance85.

The A.M.E. Church is of particular importance in marking Biddy Mason’s philanthropy, both because of her continued association with the church and the black community’s continued association of Biddy Mason with the work of the first black church organized in Los Angeles.

The first A.M.E. after being organized in her home was located in four additional sites before being on Azusa street in the area of what is presently Little Tokyo. By purchasing a lot at the corner of 4th and Grand for $700 the congregation became the mother church for all subsequent black churches and the first Negro church in the group to buy land and build a church86 (See Plate 22). The Azusa street building was later used as a warehouse, when it was replaced by a stately church at 8th and Towne, the church of the wealthiest negro residents of Los Angeles87. This building was a beautiful Gothic edifice, modeled after an English Cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren. An additional wing used as a youth center was designed in 1947 by Los Angeles architect Paul R. Williams88. Later work of the church included organizing the Sojourner Truth Club for the purposes of establishing a working girls home89.

Section Five: Biddy Mason’s Descendants and Legacy

At the time of Biddy Mason’s death, she had two daughters, two grandsons and several grandchildren. Her second eldest daughter died a young death on August 1, 1857. Ellen Mason Owen (married to Charles Owen who died in 1882) later married George Huddleston. Harriet Mason who married Mr. Washington, died June 9, 1914. Ellen’s sons were Robert C. Owens and Henry L. Owens. In 1893 her grandson Robert C. Owens, later to be known as a successful black capitalist, married Anna Dugger. There were the parents of Gladys and Varnella Owens. Gladys married “Red” Spikes a band leader of the 1920’s, and they had a son Robert Owens Spikes III. 90 Currently the great grand daughter of Biddy Mason, Gladys Owens-Smith and her daughter and granddaughter live in Los Angeles.91

The first effort to preserve Biddy Mason’s History was a proposal for a six storey building on the site of her first property which was to house on the second floor a community center to train black youths and help them find employment. The Tuskegee Institute, which was later subsumed under the Urban League was to undertake the operation, but unfortunately, it remained a proposal.92

More recently, in 1971, there was an attempt to create a Biddy Mason Museum and community center, when the church at 8th and Towne was named a historical monument on January 1971. Unfortunately, the building burned down on July 4 1971.93 A few years later Miriam Matthews and other community members succeeded in time or the bicentennial in having a plaque placed in the sidewalk commemorating the A.M.E. Church and Biddy Mason’s work. However, the efforts to make a “Biddy Mason” park at the site failed.94 Another bicentennial effort included a special booklet published by Donna Mungen, “The Life and Times of Biddy Mason”, which was part of a Black History commemorative project and the Biddy Mason festival.95

There have been additional efforts to create a cultural center to honor Biddy Mason. One was a restoration project of the home of Mrs. Jessie L. Terry at 1152 E. Adams Blvd., making it into a museum and community center. This effort, as well as the one for the preservation of the church at 8th and Towne were sponsored by the Federation of Black History and Art.96

Miriam Matthews has been an historian of Los Angeles History since 1941, and is an expert on Biddy Mason and black cultural history from 1871-1940.  She has been largely responsible for the efforts made to preserve Biddy Mason’s history. Most recently she assembled from her extensive collection materials for an exhibition at the Museum of Science and Technology.97

Miriam Matthews was California’s first Black librarian with professional training. She has degrees from I.C. Berkeley and the University of Chicago. In 1929 she was the first to stimulate interest in Los Angeles celebration of Negro History Week, and since the early 1940’s she has been researching the history of blacks and building a personal collection of photos, books, documents and arts.

Section Six: Future Proposals to Commemorate Biddy Mason

There are several possible ways to commemorate Biddy Mason, linking proposals both to the sites that were part of her daily life in early Los Angeles and to the community that still remains. Because of the number of sites associated with Biddy and her life story (including those of Dr. Griffin and Robert Owens, as well as her own) a walking tour was initially considered. (see Plates 8 and 34). However, upon visiting the sites this approach was abandoned in favor of concentration on one or two locales because of the destitute nature of area surrounding the sites which are quite near skid row or in desolate industrial areas. On the corner of 8th and Towne (discussed above) we envisioned a mural depicting perhaps the early history of the church from its beginnings in Mason’s home to its status in the community at present. (Plates 22, 23, and 24 show the original A.M.E. Church, the site as it is today and the commemorative plaque now in place). The block on Olive and 6th is now crowded with high rise structures (see Plate 21, showing the northeast corner as seen from Pershing Square). However, its proximity to Pershing Square offers other possibilities. The contemporary square is a bleak shadow of the lush central park that it once was, and the two statues that highlights the square (that of Beethoven and Pershing) have little to do with the history of Los Angeles, much less the square itself. (See Plates 25 to 28). At this site we would propose a statue of Biddy Mason reminiscent of her actual use of the square (which we assume because of the proximity of her site to the square). This might feature Mason seated on  bench surrounded by children or perhaps even seated in the bandstand recreated to remind us of the faćade of Robert Owens house where she is shown in a photograph surrounded by other members of the family and friends (see Plates 32 and 33). On her original properties, in the lobby of the future state building, we propose a mural depicting her life and works. Finally, we would support the proposal of the black community to establish a center in her name of Adams Street. (See Plates 29 to 31, showing the neighbourhood and the site for the center). The structure under consideration is located in a thriving black community and would certainly revive not only visually but actively the philanthropic works for which Mason is so well remembered.

Bibliography and Endnotes

1.     Bond J.M. THE NEGRO IN LOS ANGELES Dissertation University of Southern California 1936 p. 7

2.     Ibid. p. 12

3.     Bass, Charlotta FOURTY YEARS; MEMOIRS FROM THE PAGES OF A NEWSPAPER Los Angeles 1960 p. 7 -9

4.     Ibid. P. 7-9, 20, 115, 116, 197

5.     Freedom Papers JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY VOL. 3 1918 p. 52

6.     Mungen, Donna THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BIDDY MASON n.p.

7.     Freedom Papers op. cit. p. 52 Note: Most accounts indicate Missouri as a stopping place on the journey and not Mississippi

8.     Bond, J.M. Op. Cit.p.7,8

9.     Octavia, Vivian B. THE STORY OF THE NEGRO IN LOS ANGELES R. and E. Research Association August 1936 San Francisco p. 3

10.  Bond op. cit. p. 8

11.  Freedom Papers op. cit. p. 52

12.  Mungen Op. Cit.  N.P.

13.  Freedom Papers op. cit. p. 57

14.  Equitable Branch Security Trust and Savings Bank, EL PUEBLO 1928 p. 45


16.  Octavia Op. cit. p. 2

17.  Equitable Branch Security Trust Op. cit. p. 57

18.  Ibid.

19.  Mungen D., Op. cit. n.p.: Beasley D. THE NEGRO TRAIL BLAZERS p. 110

20.  Beasley Op. cit. p. 110

21.  Equitable Branch Security Op. cit. pp. 70 – 72

22.  Ibid.

23.  Ludwig, Louis Salvator, LOS ANGELES IN THE SUNNY SEVENTIES, Zeitlin 1929, Translated by M.E. Wilbur orig. published in Prague 1878 p. 121

24.  Ibid.

25.  Equitable Branch Security Op. cit. p. 61

26.  W.W. Robison MAPS OF LOS ANGELES Los Angeles 1966 p. 5

27.  Ibid. p. 8

28.  Ibid. p. 9

29.  Newmard Maurice and Marco CENSUS OF THE CITY AND COCUNTY OF LSO AGNELES, CALIFORNIA FOR THE YEAR 1850 L.A., Los Angeles Mirror Press 1929 p. 30, 37,39,42,44,55,56,82,104

30.  Harris, Newmark SIXTY YEARS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA New York, Knickbooker Press 1916 p.137 ff

31.  Bond Op. Viy. P. 12

32.  Bond op. cit. p. 12 ff

33.  Octavia op. cit. p. 5

34.  Salvator Op. cit. p. 97

35.  THE FIRST LOS ANGELES CITY AND COUNTY DIRECTORY 1872 with an intro dustion by Ward Ritchie and J.M. Guinn, Ritchie, 1963 p. 9

36.  Salvator Op. cit. p. 97

37.  Ibid. p. 129

38.  Los Angeles Times February 12 1909 pt. III p. 4

39.  Bass op. cit. p. 116



42.  LOS ANGELES COUNTY DEEDS Book 4 p. 461, 537, Book 6 p. 408



45.  Bong op. cit. p. 13

46.  Beasley op. cit. p. 110

47.  Bond op. cit. p. 13

48.  Mungen Op. Cit n.p.


50.  Campbell, Marie FOLKDS DO GET BORN New York Rinehart and Company 1946 p. 7


52.  Salvator Op. Cit. p. 135-36, Equitable Branch Security Op. cit. p. 135-36, Equitable Branch Security Op. Cit. p. 62

53.  Octavia op. cit. p. 6 “The desire for acquiring property which had nearly become a mania with Biddy was inculcated in the minds of the family”; and Mungenop. Cit. n.p.

54.  LOS ANGELES DEEDS Book 8. P. 423

55.  Mungen Op. cit. n.p.

56.  Footnote missing from document

57.  LOS ANGELES DEEDS Book 10 p. 286

58.  Beasley op. cit. p. 90

59.  Bass op. cit. p. 90

60.  Ibid. p. 8


62.  Salvator Op. cit. p. 121


64.  Ibid. p. 127

65.  Ibid. p. 9

66.  Salvator Op. cit. p. 126; Equitable Branch Security Op. cit. p. 67

67.  Salvator Op. cit. p. 126

68.  Ibid.

69.  Ibid.

70.  Ibid.

71.  Equitable Branch Security Op. Cit. p. 67


This course paper was submitted by Susan M. Ruddick and Mary-Beth Welch, enrolled in Professor Dolores Hayden’s course titled Los Angeles Place Making, at the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, February 1984.  It represents the best research on Biddy Mason at that time.  A copy of the paper was archived in the SOS! Files held by the USC Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.