Mary Ellen Pleasant

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Mary Ellen Pleasant

Did you know… Mary Ellen Pleasant (19 August 1814 – 4 January 1904)?
Black history day
Mary Ellen’s origins have conflicting sources and birth dates. In one version of her memoirs dictated to her god-daughter Charlotte Downs, she claimed she was born a slave to a Voodoo priestess and John Hampden Pleasants, youngest son of Governor of Virginia James Pleasants. In any case, she showed up in Nantucket, Massachusetts circa 1827 as a bonded servant to a storekeeper, “Grandma” Hussey. She worked out her bondage, then became a family member and lifelong friend to Hussey’s granddaughter Phoebe Hussey Gardner. The Husseys were deeply involved in the abolitionist movement, and Mary Ellen met many of the famous abolitionists. Working in the shop, Mary Ellen also gained business skills that were to aid her in later life.

Due to her white father, she often passed for white. This helped in her Underground Railroad work. Mary Ellen married another mulatto, James Smith in about 1840. Smith had founded a successful flour mill, and owned a plantation to support it – but freed all of the slaves working it. Together, Mary Ellen and James worked on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves reach freedom. This attracted the attention of slave catchers. James and Mary Ellen had to relocate to somewhere they were not known well. For four years, they transported slaves to Ohio, Canada, and other free states. James fell ill on one of their journeys and died. His will left instructions and money for continuing the abolition and Underground Railroad work.

In 1848, Mary Ellen formed an alliance, and then marriage with JJ Pleasant. She and Pleasant continued Underground Railroad work, attracting the attention of the slave catchers. JJ had Creole relatives in New Orleans opposed to slavery, and they traveled there to escape, though both were legally free. JJ booked passage to San Francisco, and Mary Ellen followed in April 1852.

Mary Ellen was not too proud to clean and cook – she took work where she could find it, and soon was in the Case and Heiser exclusive white eating establishment. She often passed herself as white to gain access, but soon her cooking and business skills made everyone forget what color she was. With other blacks, she never pretended. She opened her own restaurants and boarding houses, taking advantage of the rough San Francisco boom town environment.

“She engaged a young clerk, Thomas Bell, at the Bank of California and they began to make money based on her tips and guidance. Thomas made money of his own, especially in quicksilver, and by 1875 they had amassed a 30 million dollar fortune (roughly 647 million dollars in 2017[4]) between them. J.J., who had worked with Mary Ellen from the slave-stealing days to the civil rights court battles of the 1860s and ’70s, died in 1877 of diabetes.” – Wikipedia

With her wealth, she continued her Underground Railroad activities, helping slaves escape west and north, earning her the nickname, “The Harriet Tubman of California.” She actively supported John Brown – purportedly when he was captured at Harper’s Ferry, there was a note in his pocket signed “MEP”. She always used her wealth and business acumen to help those of her race find employment and freedom. After the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, she officially changed her race on census and other official documents to Black.

Mary Ellen received a letter from a governor addressing her as “Mammy Pleasant” – she returned the letter with the curt response that her name was Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant. Beyond that, she didn’t deem his correspondence a waste of paper.

This caused no little stir and some discrimination. Like an early Rosa Parks, she fought court battles to eliminate discrimination against blacks on San Francisco public transit. Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, went to the California Supreme Court and took two years to complete. She won, but the court reduced her damages severely. Another series of court battles with Senator Thomas Bell and William Sharon damaged her reputation in a smear campaign.

“On the first day of the trial, William Sharon’s attorney asserted that his client was the victim of a plot involving an elderly black woman who had used voodoo to steal Sharon’s hard-earned fortune. That woman was known to the San Francisco public as “Mammy Pleasant,” around whom sinister rumors had swirled for years. Some accused her of being a murderess, a madam, and a practitioner of black magic who befriended white families only to curse them and bleed them dry; a nightmarish image of “the mammy gone wrong,” to quote one historian. But just as many—especially among the black community—knew her as Mary Ellen Pleasant: an ingenious entrepreneur, pioneering civil-rights activist, and beloved benefactor who broke racial taboos and played a singular role in the early years of San Francisco.” – Paris Review

Her legal battles cost her so much that she died in San Francisco, California on January 4, 1904, in poverty.

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