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From Rags to Riches: How Biddy Mason Was Freed from Slavery and Amassed a Fortune

Meet the inspiring woman who came from slavery and became one of Los Angeles' wealthiest African-Americans.
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Have you ever felt like the game was rigged against you? Have you ever counted all the ways the world made sure you wouldn’t accomplish your dreams?

Next time you’re feeling low, consider the life of Bridget “Biddy” Mason, an African-American woman born into slavery who was able to amass a wealth of $300,000 when $2.50 was considered a “good” daily wage for an African-American woman.

wall, outdoors, outside, sidewalkBiddy was separated from her parents as a child, sold multiple times, and transferred from one plantation to another like the cattle with which she traveled. Like almost all other slaves, she had no formal education. She learned to administer herbal medicines and practiced as a midwife with the help of other enslaved women, using the knowledge she was given to her utmost ability.

When Biddy’s master, John Smithson, decided to move his family and slaves 2,000 miles across the country, Biddy made it possible. Nowadays, many of us find it difficult to make the trip to a fast-food joint, opting for delivery instead. Imagine, then, traveling for 2,000 miles without a car, while herding cattle, delivering several babies (both human and animal) en-route as the go-to midwife, and preparing meals for the entire traveling group – about 90 people!

Biddy’s lucky break came when her master decided to move to California, which was then a free-state. With the help of Charles Owens, a man seeking the affection of Biddy’s daughter, she learned that she could win her freedom in court.

As Biddy’s owner became aware of the growing anti-slavery sentiment in California, he sought to relocate once again to the slave state of Texas. Before he was able to do so, however, Charles Owens convinced his father, a successful businessman, to have the county sheriff jail Biddy and the rest of Smith’s slaves to prevent him from taking them from the state.

Smith tried to convince the judge that they were members of his extended family, rather than his property, in order to keep them. After the judge heard Biddy’s private testimony, however, he took her side. He granted Biddy her freedom on January 21st, 1856, along with her daughters and the other slaves held captive by Mr. Smith.

With her freedom in tow, she accepted an invitation from the Owens family and moved to Los Angeles, where she began to work and gain a reputation as a midwife and skilled herbalist. Saving her wage of about $2.50 a day, she accumulated $250 and used it to buy two lots of land, becoming one of the first African-Americans to ever own property in the city of Los Angeles.

On one lot, Biddy lived, and with the other, she gained an income by building a few small houses to rent. She continued to rent these houses for 16 years before using the income to develop a commercial building and buy several other lots in the area.

It wasn’t long before Biddy became one of the wealthiest African-Americans in Los Angeles, most of her early investments lying in what became the central commercial district of Los Angeles, and turning into prime real estate.

During all of this, and despite the way she was treated during her life, Biddy gave back more than most of us could ever imagine. She built the first African-American church in Los Angeles and donated generously to several other charities. She also personally fed the poor and visited prisoners with gifts and much-needed love.

At 73, on January 15th, 1891, she was buried in an unmarked grave. About a century later, a tombstone marked her history and helped others to appreciate and learn from her life and accomplishments.

If you learn anything from Biddy, learn that you are your only master. Take every opportunity you’re given and make sure your hopes are always high. Life will always seem rigged against you, but seriously, what’s your excuse?

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