African American History in Mexican California

Ellen Mason as a Young Woman, Miriam Matthews Photograph collection (Collection 1889,
Box 2, Folder 1). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research library, UCLA.

In the Spanish and Mexican eras, American descent settlers were founded in Los Angeles, California. After U.S. annexation in 1848, middle class of African Americans moved to Los Angeles between 1980 and 1915. During this period of time, churches, social and friendly organizations for black community were formed. Moreover, we could see how they (i.e., African Americans) contributed to civil right legislation and advocacy and grown their black­-owned businesses, some of them were elected for government positions. With the interest of African American history in early Los Angeles, I start working on Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection, which consists of 4, 600 black and white photographs of African Americans immigrated to California and their daily life and family members in Los Angeles and California.

The box “Some Early Settlers Within Los Angeles. 1800­-1880” includes photographs of members of the Mason and Owens families. Biddy Mason was mentioned frequently from the notes in the back of photographs, as was her eldest daughter Ellen , her grandchildren Robert and Henry Owens, and her great-grandchildren Gladys Owens Smith and Manila Owens.

It seems Biddy Mason, who came as a slave and later became real estate entrepreneur in Los Angeles, has a huge influence on their family. She also dined at the home of Pio Pico occasionally, who is the last Mexican governor and wealthy landowner. This raises the questions: who is Biddy Mason? How did she get along with Pio Pico? Did he help her succeed in Alta California in early years?

Biddy Mason’s eldest daughter, Ellen, married Charles P. Owens in Los Angeles, California on October 16, 1856. They had two sons: Robert Curry Owens and Henry L. Owens. After Charles Owens died in 1882 and her mother ­Biddy Mason died in 1891, Ellen and her sons handled their increasingly valuable estates. Later, she was wed to Mr. George Huddleston.

This “Mother Goose” party was given by the Owens family in 1906. Notice the mix of African American and Mexican American people in the picture, suggesting potentially a multiracial family.

Mother Goose Party. Miriam Matthews Photograph collection (Collection 1889, Box 4, Folder 2). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research library, UCLA.