A Grandmother’s Legacy: The Story of Robert Curry Owens

This is the final installment of a three-part series on the Mason and Owens families, two wealthy black American families that helped build Los Angeles.

Robert Curry Owens was 22 years old when his father Charles died in 1882. A native of Los Angeles and the son of former slaves, Robert C. Owens was the first in his family to be born free. His birth in January 1860 also marked the first of few African-American children born into great wealth, a legacy started by his grandfather and grandmother, Bridget “Biddy” Mason. This would afford him and his brother Henry the opportunity to be educated at the J.B. Sanderson’s School for Blacks in Oakland, Calif., where they would attend with his mother Ellen who had not learned to read or write. He would later go on to study business, graduating just three years before his father’s death.

The final decades of the 19th century was a time of rapid progress for Los Angeles. The railroad would officially link the city to the East Coast, ushering in a migration of largely middle class African-Americans. They were lured by reports in African-American magazines and newspapers of the “negro experience” in California. While the state was not free from the inevitable racism, the progressive politics of the time afforded blacks in the West opportunities unheard of in the South. Robert Owens himself would write that “Colored men…who want to better their condition and enjoy every political right as American citizens should come to the Golden West” in an article in Colored American Magazine.

Owens and his brother took over the livery business started by his grandfather after his father’s death. When his grandmother Biddy Mason died in 1891, he inherited her estate at 333 Spring Street. The Owens Livery Stable had outgrown its property on San Pedro, so he used part of the estate to build a larger one. He also built a six story commercial building on the property. This would mark the beginning of the Owens business district, the result of his real estate dealings through his company Robert Owens Investments. The company would also manage some of the most valuable properties in the city. His own buildings housed several black-owned businesses, providing an income of more than $1,000 per month – an incredible amount of money at the time.

His wealth included influence. News makers of the day would often be entertained in his home, including the city’s mayor and Booker T. Washington. He had purchased one of the most elegant homes in a predominately white neighborhood and it included a private stable which housed three thoroughbred horses. It was shared with his wife Annie, who was described as cultured and business savvy, and their “cheerful” daughters Gladys and Manila grew up as affluent all-American girls.

His reputation as being scrupulously honest in his dealings, as well as kind and energetic, propelled him into an influential Black leader. He would be the first to attend the California State Republican Convention and serve on the Los Angeles County Executive Committee. His friendship with Booker T. Washington would lead Owens to invest heavily into the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and would sponsor scholarships for poor students who attended. Through much of the early 1900s, Owens was the wealthiest African-American man in Los Angeles with an estimated wealth of over a quarter of a million dollars, and was known as the very best black financier in the state.

Like many businessmen, Owens was hit hard by the fall of the stock market, with his wealth quickly dwindling by the start of the Great Depression. It is said that this is what brought on his death in 1932. In a 1988 interview, his daughter Gladys Owens-Smith said her father had killed himself and other family members just as the Depression was underway.

While the family’s wealth did not live on, their legacy does. Today on Biddy Mason’s first property located at 333 Spring Street, bought for $250 in 1866, stands a multimillion dollar high-rise parking garage and commercial center. Next to it is Biddy Mason Park, which houses a memorial to Biddy and her family.

Present at the dedication was Robert C. Owens’ daughter and Biddy Mason’s great-granddaughter, Gladys Owens-Smith along with Gladys’ daughter and granddaughters. Gladys’ Linda Cox noted how she didn’t learn about her family’s legacy in school. Yet her daughters, would read about their great-great-great-great grandmother in their elementary school. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1991, the girls spoke of how their classmates in the Culver City elementary school didn’t believe them when they exclaimed “That’s my grandmother!” with one classmate saying if it was true, they’d be rich.

In the forward of a book published in 2002 about her great-great-great grandmother, Linda Cox, wrote about that Biddy’s family legacy was giving to others with open hands, a value she hoped to instill in her own daughters. Today, the youngest of those girls has a doctorate in Economics and is an assistant professor at a university in Southern California. Her research and published works focus on understanding the social and economic consequences of mass incarceration.

Photo Credit: Robert Curry Owens via California African-American Museum

38 comments

william Miller
william Miller9 months ago

thanks

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

Thanks for this interesting story. There are many such stories in our history!

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Kathryn Irby
Past Member 1 years ago

Very interesting story! Thank you for sharing it!

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Elisabeth Hansson
Elisabeth H1 years ago

interesting ty

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pam w.
pam w1 years ago

THANKS, Crystal!

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry K1 years ago

Many thanks to you !

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Veronica B.
Veronica B1 years ago

Interesting article

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Sharon S.
Sharon S1 years ago

Fascinating story, sorry that I did not have an opportunity to read the first 2 articles.

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Maxine Stopfer
Maxine Stopfer1 years ago

I enjoyed all three articles about the family. Sad that he took his own life along with other family members. I will probably see what else I can find on the family as I am now interested in the family members who he killed. Thank you for peaking my interest in this family.

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