Mary Ellen Pleasant (died January 4, 1904) was a 19th Century female entrepreneur of partial African descent who used her fortune to further abolition. She worked on the Underground Railroad across many states and then helped bring it to California during the Gold Rush Era. She was a friend and financial supporter of John Brown and well known in abolitionist circles. After the Civil War she took her battles to the courts in the 1860s, and won several civil rights victories, one of which was cited and upheld in the 1980’s and resulted in her being called, “The Mother of Human Rights in California”.
Learn more about Mary Ellen Pleasant, free from mepleasant.com. Mary Ellen made contradictory claims about her earliest years. Her birthday is known to be August 19; the year is unknown but may be between 1814-1817. In the mostly likely version of her memoirs dictated to her god-daughter, Charlotte Downs, she claimed she was born a slave to a Voodoo (her word: Vodou was not in use at the time) priestess and the youngest offspring of a Virginia governor, John Hampden Pleasants. In any case she showed up in Nantucket circa 1827 as a 10-13 year old bonded servant to store keeper, “Grandma” Hussey and worked out her bondage, then became a family member and lifelong friend to Grandma's granddaughter Phoebe Hussey Gardner. The Husseys were involved in Abolition and it is known that Mary Ellen met most of the famous luminaries of the movement during her youth on Nantucket.
Career and Marriages
With the support of the Hussey/Gardners she often passed as white. Mary Ellen 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 stealer” 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.
She began a partnership/marriage with John James Pleasants circa 1848, (though no records exist of it, the marriage was probably conducted by their friend Captain Gardner, Pheobe's husband, on his boat). They continued Smith’s work for a few more years when increasing attention from slavers forced a move to New Orleans. JJ Pleasants appears to have been a close relative of Marie Laveau’s husband and there is some indication that Mary Ellen and Marie Laveau did meet and consult many times before Mary Ellen went to San Francisco of the Gold Rush Era, arriving in April 1852 by boat. JJ had gone ahead and written back that the area seemed promising for the Underground Railroad.
When Mary Ellen arrived in San Francisco (known as Yerba Buena briefly), 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 establishment. 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 amassed a 30 million dollar fortune between them. JJ who had worked with Mary Ellen from the slave stealing days to the civil rights court battles of the 1860's and 70's, died in 1877 of diabetes.
Mary Ellen 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 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 Armory incident, but as it was only signed with the initials “MEP” (which were misread as “WEP”) she was not caught and was able to return to San Francisco to continue her work there where she was known as the “Black City Hall”.
After the war, she publicly changed her racial designation in the City Directory from "White" to "Black", causing a little stir among some whites. She began a series of court battles to fight laws prohibiting blacks from riding trolleys and other such abuses. She usually prevailed.
San Francisco court case, 1866
Pleasant successfully attacked racial discrimination in San Francisco public conveyances when she and two other black women were ejected from a city streetcar in 1866. Her lawsuit, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, outlawed segregation in the city's public conveyances. Her efforts earned her the title "mother of the Civil Rights Movement" in California. Her lawsuit set a precedent in the California Supreme Court and was used in future civil rights cases, such as an 1893 case over segregation in housing.
Scandals and Smears, 1884-1954
The reason she is not better known today is probably because of the scandals of the late 19th century which began by dragging her name through the mud in the courts over another person’s dishonored marriage contract. This court battle between Sarah Althea Hill and William Sharon smeared Mary Ellen badly, but the job was finished later when Teresa Bell, Thomas Bell’s widow, sued Mary Ellen over Thomas’ estate. The house Mary Ellen had designed for Thomas Bell and herself became known as the “House of Mystery” and the peculiar arrangements with Thomas’ farce of a “marriage” were exposed and paraded through the courts though they had nothing to do with the battle at hand. It does show you what a black woman and a white man thought they had to do in that time and place to have a life under the same roof.
The Hill/Sharon battle and Sharon’s newspaper allies, publicly named Mary Ellen as a Voodoo priestess (which she may have been) but went on to say that she was a baby stealer, a baby eater, a multiple murderess, a madam, a lying, conniving, cunning, schemer, and maybe, worst of all, hung the epithet of “Mammy” upon her. All the press from the 1880’s and beyond was extremely negative to an aging Mary Ellen. She was quoted on more than one occasion as saying, “DON’T call me Mammy!”, a request too often ignored by friend and foe alike.
She died on January 4, 1904.
In 1953, Helen Holdredge, who had inherited Teresa Bell’s diaries, wrote a book that devoted 37 pages to Mary Ellen’s achievements up to 1875 and 250 pages to the scandalous newspaper accounts of the 1880’s. She did not index the book nor did she do citations in the text. This book uses many negative adjectives about Mary Ellen and serves up the worst of the gossip. It sold very well and even went into paperback and is still readily available today. There is a list of sources in the back, though some of these sources are unavailable to other researchers.
Although some fiction was written that included Mary Ellen in various guises, it was not until the 1998 that another writer and researcher, Susheel Bibbs, who had done accurate historical research on Mary Ellen’s life began to publish a series of monographs available through MEP Productions, SF. Susheel’s work on Mary Ellen is recognized by the California Humanities Council.
In 2003 Lynne Hudson wrote a scholarly book about Mary Ellen entitled 'The Making of "Mammy Pleasant', Hudson's book has footnotes and citations.
In 2001, the novel 'Sister Noon,' by Karen Joy Fowler, was published. It features "Mammy Pleasant," Thomas Bell, and Teresa Bell as secondary characters who also contribute to the plot (which focuses on a fictional social worker of the time).