The words on the tombstone of Mary Ellen Pleasant only tell a part of her story.
Like Brown, she “was an ardent Abolitionist, and she determined to assist Brown. She met him at Chatham, Canada West, over the line, and gave him a purse of gold she had taken from California. Brown used the money in the cause.” (Tripp)
Some called her ‘Mammy’, but she asserted, “I am Mammy to no one.”
According to Pleasant, she was born free on August 19, 1814 in Philadelphia. She claimed her father was Louis Alexander Williams, a native Hawaiian (‘a Kanaka from the Pacific Islands’) and her mother, Mary (her namesake) was a “full blooded Negress from Louisiana.” (Ball etal)
Her father was a businessman who imported silk from India. While she believed he had some education, she knew her mother had none and was likely illiterate.
When she was 6-years old her parents sent her to Nantucket, MA, to work for a white family as a domestic servant. Pleasant also worked for a Quaker woman, ‘Grandma Hussey.’
Pleasant believed her father had given Hussey a considerable amount of money for her to get an education, but she never received one. Pleasant learned to read and write, and described herself as “a girl full of smartness.” (Ball et al)
Nantucket proved an ideal locale for an ambitions, headstrong girl to learn business, Indeed, Nantucket Town was overrun with woman-owned shops because of the abundance of so-called whaling wives who ran the town while the men were at sea. (Hudson)
When she ended her work on the island of Nantucket, the family who owned the store helped Pleasant become established in Boston. It was there that she met and married her first husband, Cuban planter and abolitionist Alexander Smith. He died in 1848 and left her with $45,000, a substantial legacy, to be used to support abolitionist causes.
Soon after, she married John Pleasant (or Pleasants), who had been an overseer on the Smith plantation. She reportedly was involved in the Underground Railroad, and was so successful in assisting escaping slaves that she had “a price on her head in the South.” (Encyclopedia)
Accounts relate that the Pleasants went to California in 1849, during the gold rush, but her husband apparently did not figure very significantly in her life after the journey.
Pleasant moved to San Francisco and put her business acumen and entrepreneurial skills, not to mention her reputation as a noteworthy cook, to work. There was much wealth circulating in the heady days of the gold rush, but few luxuries in the area to spend it on.
Miners and merchants were clamoring for services, and Pleasant, according to San Francisco newspapers, rejected many offers of employment as a cook from people with means. Instead, with her name now well known, she opened a boarding house that provided lodging and food, both of which were scarce.
She expanded her business dealings by lending money to businessmen and miners at an interest rate of 10%, while also investing wisely on the advice of her influential boarders and other associates. During this time, she gained a reputation as “The Fabulous Negro Madam,” acting as a procurer for her male associates. (Encyclopedia)
She invested her money wisely: Her businesses in San Francisco included laundries, dairies and exclusive restaurants — all of which were quite lucrative in a city filled with miners and single businessmen.
In the 1890 census she listed her occupation as ‘capitalist.’ (Curbed SFO) Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, once owned by Mary Ellen Pleasant, has been recognized as a Black historical site by the National Park Service. (Sonoma-Index-Tribune)
Between the years of 1830 and 1927, as the last generation of blacks born into slavery was reaching maturity, a small group of industrious, tenacious, and daring men and women broke new ground to attain the highest levels of financial success. (Wills)
Concerned about racial equality, she became increasingly involved in helping others and in civil-rights activities during the 1850s and 1860s. Mary Ellen Pleasant, used her Gold Rush wealth to provide financial assistance for these causes; she also sought out and rescued slaves being held illegally in the California countryside.
(California had entered the Union as a free state under the Compromise of 1850, but the legal status of slaves brought there by their owners from slave states was vague.)
Pleasant also found jobs in wealthy households for runaway slaves and developed an information network. One of the most widely circulated, albeit unsubstantiated, reports on Pleasant concerns her role in abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859.
She reportedly sailed to the East in 1858 and in Canada gave Brown $30,000 to finance his battle against slavery. Among Brown’s belongings when he was captured was a note that read: “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money to help. (signed) W.E.P.”
Supporters of this theory suggest that the “M” in Pleasant’s initials may have been misread as a “W.” Skeptics of her account of the Brown connection, however, say that Brown had already left Canada by the time of her visit there, and that she produced no evidence to prove she had given him any money.
Pleasant returned to San Francisco around 1859 and continued both her business activities and her activism. In 1863, she was integral in winning African-Americans the right to testify in court in California (previously, neither African-Americans nor Native Americans were allowed to speak in court in civil or criminal cases, even ones in which they were directly involved).
She also fought to win the right of African-Americans to use San Francisco’s streetcars. In 1868, she brought two railroads to court and successfully sued them for refusing her passage.
By mid-1899, however, claiming to be drained financially by her legal entanglements, Pleasant filed for bankruptcy, and requested food and other necessities from acquaintances. (It is thought, nonetheless, that she retained a considerable amount of money even at that time.)
She lived her last few months in the San Francisco home of a family named Sherwood who had befriended her, dying on January 11, 1904, and was buried in their burial plot in Napa, California. (Encyclopedia)
While the corner of Bush and Octavia Streets in San Francisco is home to the city’s smallest park (it’s just a small stretch of sidewalk without a patch of grass or spot for picnicking), it is dedicated to a larger-than-life figure: Mary Ellen Pleasant (1817-1904).
A round floor plaque in the park reads, “Mother of Civil Rights in California. She supported the western terminus of the underground railway for fugitive slaves 1850-1865. This legendary pioneer once lived on this site and planted these six trees.” (SF Heritage) (An image of Queen Emma is sometimes mistaken/ mislabeled as Mary Ellen Pleasant.)