Mary Ellen Pleasant Civil Rights Pioneer

Mary Ellen Pleasant Grove
Octavia and Bush Streets
 The six eucalyptus trees on this corner are all that's left of the estate of millionaire capitalist Thomas Bell.  Bell lived here with his much-younger wife Teresa, their five children and their housekeeper,  a old woman of mixed race named  Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Whether Mary and her employer were lovers, or business partners, or whether she controlled Bell  under some voodoo spell as some claimed, may never be known. When Thomas died in 1892  after a late-night fall from the top of his mansion's central staircase, many said Mary had pushed him.  Mary was in her 70s by then, and spent the last years of her life fighting lawsuits over this property and others, brought against her by Teresa Bell and a line of creditors .  Although Mary had amassed a fortune in real estate and businesses once estimated at $30 million, she died broke in 1904.  The mansion became a boarding house and was torn down in the 1920s.        

Mary Ellen Pleasant, about  87 years old.

Photo Credit:  SF Public Library, AAD-2997; 

Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mother of Civil Rights in California
            1814 - 1904 

            Mary gave conflicting details about her early life, probably to hide the fact that she had been born into slavery in the South.  Her mother was Haitian and a skilled practitioner of a mix of magic, superstition and religion known as Voodoo.  Of mixed race, Mary was light-skinned enough to be mistaken for white, a fact she used to her advantage throughout her life.    
Mary was sent to Massachusetts in her early teens as an indentured servant to a Quaker family who first introduced  her to the concept of that all races are equal.  She would continue to fight for freedom and equality for the rest of her life.  
Mary was allowed to earn her freedom and she and  her first husband, James Smith,  played an important role in the Underground Railway, a secret  alliance of people helping fugitive slaves escape the South.  When Smith died two years into the marriage, Mary inherited his considerable fortune and pledged to spend it continuing to help those escaping slavery.
After the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, Mary fled to New Orleans with her second husband, J.J. Pleasants (later changed to Pleasant)  to avoid harassment and the threat of being returned to slavery.  Here Mary received tutoring in the art of Voodoo by a respected priestess Marie LeVeaux while J.J. went on to California. Mary joined him there in 1852.  
In Gold Rush San Francisco, Mary took on two different identities.  By changing her clothing and accent, she established herself  both as Mrs. Pleasant, a black business owner helping ex-slaves, and Mrs. Ellen Smith, a white woman,  owner of a popular dining hall.  She bought up land and started several successful businesses, further increasing her fortune.  But she continued to pose as a housekeeper for her business partner, Thomas Bell. 
 In 1858, Mary traveled back to West Virginia to help abolitionist John Brown in his failed raid on the U.S. Armory at Harper's Ferry.  Brown was executed for treason, but Mary escaped back to San Francisco where she continued to fight for equality. When a local streetcar company refused to let her board because she was black, she sued them and won, earning her the title Mother of Civil Rights in California. 
Late in her life, newspapers owned by her enemies tried to discredit her by calling her “ “Mammy,” a name she despised.
For more information on Mary Ellen Pleasant, visit:, where there's an excellent summary of her life and work by Cheryl Susheel Bibbs, Ph.D., author of the book on Mary Ellen PleasantHeritage of Power, and creator of several films documenting her life .

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