Mary Ellen Pleasant

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Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant.gif
Born19 August between 1812–1817
Died(1904-01-04)January 4, 1904
Known forEntrepreneur and abolitionist

Mary Ellen Pleasant (19 August 1814-17 – 4 January 1904) was a 19th-century American entrepreneur, financier, real estate magnate and abolitionist. She identified herself as "a capitalist by profession" in the 1890 United States Census.[1] Pleasant attended the Religious Society of Friends before being baptized into the Baptist faith. She worked on the Underground Railroad and helped bring it to California during the Gold Rush era. She was a lover, friend and financial supporter of John Brown and well known in abolitionist circles. After the Civil War, she won several civil rights victories, one of which was cited and upheld in the 1980s and resulted in her being called "The Mother of Human Rights in California", though other legal battles had mixed results.[2]

Early years[edit]

Pleasant made contradictory claims about her earliest years, and her exact origin remains unclear.[2] Her birthday is known to be August 19, but the year is disputed.[citation needed] Her gravestone at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California shows her birth-year as 1817,[3] although other sources list her birth as 1814. The location of her birth is also disputed. Some claim she had been born in Georgia, but she stated in her autobiography that she had been born in Philadelphia.[4]

The identity of her parents is also unknown. She wrote that her mother was a "full-blooded Negress from Louisiana" and her father was Hawaiian,[5] but in another version of her memoirs dictated to her god-daughter Charlotte Downs, she wrote that 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 arrived in Nantucket, Massachusetts c. 1827 as a 10- to 13-year-old bonded servant to work for a Quaker storekeeper, "Grandma" Hussey. She wrote she had been sent there when she was six.[citation needed] She worked her way out of bondage and became a family member and lifelong friend to Hussey's granddaughter, Phoebe Hussey Gardner. The Husseys were deeply involved in the abolitionist movement, and Pleasant met many prominent abolitionists.[who?]

Career and marriages[edit]

With the support of the Hussey and Gardners, she often passed as white. Pleasant married James Smith, a wealthy flour contractor and plantation owner who had freed his slaves and was also able to pass as white. She worked with Smith as a "slave conductor" on the Underground Railroad until his death about four years later. They transported slaves to northern states such as Ohio and even as far as Canada. Smith left instructions and money for her to continue the work after his death. Pleasant is looked at by many historians[who?] as "The Harriet Tubman of California."

She began a partnership with John James ("J.J.") Pleasants c. 1848. Although no official records exist of their marriage, it was probably conducted by their friend Captain Gardner, Phoebe's husband, aboard his boat. They continued Smith's work for a few more years, when increasing attention from slavers forced a move to New Orleans. J.J. Pleasants appears to have been a close relative of Marie Laveau's husband, and there is some indication that Pleasant and Laveau met and consulted many times before Pleasant left New Orleans by boat for San Francisco in April 1852, J. J. had gone ahead and written back that the area seemed promising for the Underground Railroad.

When Pleasant arrived in San Francisco, she passed as white, using her first husband's name among the whites, and took jobs running exclusive men's eating establishments, starting with the Case and Heiser. She met most of the founders of the city as she catered lavish meals, and she benefited from the tidbits of financial gossip and deals usually tossed around at the tables. 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 together amassed a 30 million dollar fortune[citation needed] (roughly 647 million dollars in 2017[6]). The partnership was seen by many as illicit; the mansion she built in San Francisco for herself and Bell and his family was thought to be a brothel.[7] J.J., who had worked with Pleasant from her slave-conducting days to the civil rights court battles of the 1860s and 1870s, died in 1877 of diabetes.[citation needed]

Pleasant did not conceal her race from other blacks, and was adept at finding jobs for those brought in by Underground Railroad activities. Some of the people she sponsored became important black leaders[who?] in the city. She left San Francisco from 1857 to 1859 to help John Brown. She was said to have actively supported his cause with money and work. There was a note from her in his pocket when he was arrested after the Harpers Ferry Armory incident, but as it was only signed with the initials "MEP" (which were misread as "WEP") she was not caught. She returned to San Francisco to continue her work there, where she was known as the "Black City Hall."[8]

After the Civil War, Pleasant publicly changed her racial designation in the City Directory from "White" to "Black", causing a little stir among some whites.[citation needed] She began a series of court battles to fight laws prohibiting blacks from riding trolleys and other such abuses.

Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur "Mammy Pleasant" by local whites.[9] The press also called her "Mammy" Pleasant but she did not approve: "I don't like to be called mammy by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not mammy to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant. I wouldn't waste any of my paper on him."[10]

Harpers Ferry[edit]

When the abolitionist John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, for murder and treason, a note found in his pocket read, "The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help." Officials most likely believed it was written by a wealthy Northerner who had helped fund Brown's attempt to incite, and arm, an enormous slave uprising by taking over an arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. No one suspected that the note was written by Pleasant.[4]

Pleasant told Davis, "Before I pass away, I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested."[11] The sum she donated was $30,000 – almost $900,000 today.[12]

Suing over streetcar segregation[edit]

Pleasant successfully attacked racial discrimination in San Francisco public conveyances after she and two other black women were ejected from a city streetcar in 1866. She filed two lawsuits. The first, against the Omnibus Railroad Company, was withdrawn after the company promised to allow African-Americans to board their streetcars.[13]:51 The second case, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, went to the California Supreme Court and took two years to complete. In the city, the case outlawed segregation in the city's public conveyances.[14] However, at the State Supreme Court, the damages awarded against her at the trial court were reversed and found excessive.[13]

Later life[edit]

Later in life, a series of court battles with Sarah Althea Hill, Senator William Sharon, and the family of business associate Thomas Bell, including his widow Teresa Bell and his son Fred Bell, damaged Pleasant's reputation and cost her resources and wealth. "Story has it that Mammy kept the feeble, near-senile Bell a prisoner in his mansion at the corner of Octavia and Bush, and that she fed his children dog meat and stale bread."[15]

Late in life, Pleasant was befriended by Olive Sherwood; she died in San Francisco, California on January 4, 1904, in poverty, and she was buried in the Sherwood family plot in Tulocay Cemetery, Napa, California.[citation needed] Her gravesite is marked with a metal sculpture that was dedicated on June 11, 2011.[16]

Posthumous recognition[edit]

Pleasant has been featured or mentioned in several works of fiction. Michelle Cliff's 1993 book Free Enterprise is subtitled "A Novel of Mary Ellen Pleasant" and features her abolitionist activities.[17] The ghost of Mary Ellen Pleasant is a character in the 1997 novel Earthquake Weather, by Tim Powers. Karen Joy Fowler's historical novel Sister Noon, published in 2001, features Pleasant as a central character, and Thomas Bell and Teresa Bell as secondary characters.[18]

Pleasant's life has also been discussed in film and television including in the 2008 documentary Meet Mary Pleasant,[19] and a segment of a 2013 episode of the Comedy Central series Drunk History[20] in which Pleasant was portrayed by Lisa Bonet.

In 1974, the city of San Francisco designated eucalyptus trees that Pleasant had planted outside her mansion at the southwest corner of Octavia and Bush streets in San Francisco as a Structure of Merit.[21] The trees and associated plaque are now known as Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park, which is the smallest park in San Francisco.[22] Her burial site has been designated a "Network to Freedom" site by the National Park Service.[16] Pleasant Street on Nob Hill is named for her.[15]


  1. ^ Matney, William C., ed. (1981). Who's Who Among Black Americans. Northbrook, Ill.: Who's Who Among Black Americans, Inc. p. 479.
  2. ^ a b Davis, Marianna W., ed. (1982). Contributions of Black Women to America. 1. Columbia, South Carolina: Kenday Press, Inc. p. 371. ISBN 9993222674.
  3. ^ "Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant". Find a Grave. Retrieved September 23, 2020.
  4. ^ a b Chambers, Veronica (2019-01-31). "The Many Chapters of Mary Ellen Pleasant". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  5. ^ White, Edward (2017-06-02). "A Girl Full of Smartness". The Paris Review. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  6. ^ "$30,000,000 in 1875 → 2017 – Inflation Calculator". Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  7. ^ Jr, Tom Huddleston (2020-02-15). "Mary Ellen Pleasant, one of the first black self-made millionaires, used an ingenious trick to build her fortune". CNBC. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  8. ^ "Pleasant, Mary Ellen (1812?–1904), legendary woman of influence..." Hutchins Center. Archived from the original on 2017-04-29. Retrieved 2018-03-27.
  9. ^ McGasko, Joe. "Five African Americans Forgotten in History". Biography. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  10. ^ Chambers, Veronica. "Mary Ellen Pleasant". Retrieved September 17, 2020.
  11. ^ Hudson, Lynn Maria (2003). The Making of "Mammy Pleasant": A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-century San Francisco. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-02771-0.
  12. ^ Chambers, Veronica (2019-01-31). "The Many Chapters of Mary Ellen Pleasant". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  13. ^ a b Hudson, Lynn Maria (2002). The Making of "Mammy Pleasant": A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252075277. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  14. ^ Johnson, Jason B. (February 10, 2005). "A day for 'mother of civil rights' / Entrepreneur sued to desegregate streetcars in 1860s". San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  15. ^ a b The Chronicle 12 April 1987 p. 7
  16. ^ a b Brennen, Nancy (June 12, 2011). "Civil rights figure honored at Tulocay Cemetery". Napa Valley Register. Napa, CA: Lee Enterprises, Inc. Retrieved June 12, 2012.
  17. ^ "Free Enterprise: A Novel of Mary Ellen Pleasant". City Lights Books. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  18. ^ Hansen, Suzy. ""Sister Noon" by Karen Joy Fowler". May 21, 2001. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  19. ^ "Meet Mary Pleasant: Mother of Civil Rights in California". San Francisco Film Society. Retrieved June 28, 2014.
  20. ^ Pershan, Caleb (August 6, 2013). "Drunk Fact Checking San Francisco Drunk History". San Francisco Magazine. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  21. ^ "San Francisco Preservation Bulletin No. 13: Structures of Merit". City and County of San Francisco Planning Department. January 2003. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  22. ^ Halley, Marian. "Don't Call Her Mammy". New Fillmore. Retrieved 28 June 2014.

Other sources[edit]

External links[edit]

Archival collections[edit]