Mary Ellen Pleasant

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Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant.gif
Born19 August between 1814–1817
DiedJanuary 4, 1904(1904-01-04)
San Francisco, California, USA
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Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant.gif
Born19 August between 1814–1817
DiedJanuary 4, 1904(1904-01-04)
San Francisco, California, USA

Mary Ellen Pleasant (born 19 August 1814-1817 - died 4 January 1904) was a 19th Century female entrepreneur of partial African descent widely known as Mammy Pleasant, who used her fortune to further the abolitionist movement. 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 was 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 1980s and resulted in her being called “The Mother of Human Rights in California”. An exhibit detailing these events can be seen at the Women's Museum of California in San Diego.

Early years[edit]

Mary Ellen would never made contradictory claims about her earliest years. Her birthday is known to be August 19; the year has been listed as known probably between 1814–1817, however, her gravestone at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California, states 1812, although most sources list her birth as 1814.[1] 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 the youngest son of a Governor of Virginia, James Pleasants. In any case, she showed up in Nantucket, Massachusetts circa 1827 as a 10-13 year old bonded servant to storekeeper, "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 deeply involved in the abolitionist movement, and Mary Ellen met many of the famous abolitionists. An exhibit detailing these events can be seen at the Women's Museum of California in San Diego.


Called "the Mother of Civil Rights in California" from work begun in the 1860s, her achievements went unsurpassed until the 1960s. Pleasant was once the most talked-about woman in San Francisco. When other African Americans were rarely mentioned, she claimed full-page articles in the press. Her dramatic life was part of the story of slavery, abolition, the gold rush, and the Civil War; she helped shape early San Francisco, and covertly amassed a joint fortune once assessed at $30,000,000.[citation needed]

Career and marriages[edit]

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 with John James Pleasants circa 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 Mary Ellen and Marie Laveau did meet and consult many times before Mary Ellen went to San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era, arriving in April 1852 by boat. J. J. 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. 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. 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.

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 Harpers Ferry 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[edit]

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.[2]

Scandals and smears, 1884-1954[edit]

A 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.

The Hill/Sharon battle and Sharon’s newspaper allies, publicly named Mary Ellen as a "Voodoo priestess", 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 1880s 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!”.[citation needed]

Pleasant died in San Francisco, California on January 4, 1904 in poverty. She was befriended by Olive Sherwood near the end of her life. She was buried in the Sherwood family plot located at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California. Her gravesite is marked with a metal sculpture that was dedicated on June 11, 2011 .[3]

In 1953, Helen Holdredge, who had inherited Teresa Bell’s diaries, wrote a book that devoted a relatively small portion to Mary Ellen’s achievements up to 1875, and the rest to the scandalous newspaper accounts of the 1880s.[citation needed] She did not index the book nor did she provide citations in the text.[citation needed] 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, began to publish a series of monographs available through MEP Productions, SF.[4] Susheel’s work on Mary Ellen is recognized by the California Humanities Council. In 1975, the city of San Francisco designated eucalyptus trees—that Pleasant had planted in the 19th century at the southwest corner of Octavia and Bush streets in San Francisco—as a Structure of Merit, similar to an official landmark.[5]

In 2003 Lynn Hudson wrote a scholarly book about Mary Ellen entitled The Making of "Mammy" Pleasant, Hudson's book has footnotes and citations.[6]

Michelle Cliff's 1993 book Free Enterprise is subtitled "A Novel of Mary Ellen Pleasant" and features her abolitionist activities.[7]

The ghost of Mary Ellen Pleasant is a character in the 1997 novel Earthquake Weather, by Tim Powers.

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).

A segment of a 2013 episode of the Comedy Central series Drunk History covered Pleasant's life; Pleasant was portrayed by Lisa Bonet.


  1. ^ "Mary Ellen Pleasant". Claim to Fame: Known as the Mother of Civil Rights in California. Find a Grave. Retrieved August 15, 2010. 
  2. ^ San Francisco: A day for 'mother of civil rights' Entrepreneur sued to desegregate streetcars in 1860s (Retrieved October 15, 2007)
  3. ^ Brennen, Nancy (June 12, 2011). "Civil rights figure honored at Tulocay Cemetery". Napa Valley Register (Napa, CA: Lee Enterprises, Inc.). Retrieved June 12, 2012. 
  4. ^ Mary Ellen Pleasant bio
  5. ^ Website of Friends of 1800 Market
  6. ^ Hudson, Lynn Maria. The Making of "Mammy Pleasant": A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, University of Illinois Press, (2002) - ISBN 0252075277
  7. ^ City Lights Publishers

Gloria G. Harris, Hannah S. Cohen. Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present

External links[edit]

Archival collections[edit]