This week we are going to talk about a nineteenth century civil rights activist who went by the name of Mary Ellen Pleasant. Pleasant made her way to San Francisco where she fought for equality and became a multimillionaire. Her glory was cut short when her image was tarnished by mass media, where she was named “Mammy Pleasant”. At one point she was the most spoken about woman in San Francisco, and let’s find out why.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was a light skinned black woman who was born a slave in Georgia around 1815. She was born without a last name, as her illegitimate father was a Virginia governor’s son, John H. Pleasant and her birth mother was an enslaved Haitian voodoo priestess. Her mother was killed in front of her by a plantation owner, and after that Pleasant became wildly independent and worked to make a name for herself.
It is unclear the exact details, but it is assumed a sympathetic farmer bought her her freedom and sent her to New Orleans to work, then Cincinnati where she was supposed to work as a free worker and met Ellen Williams, the wife of Louis Williams who sold her as an indentured servant to a Quaker merchant, and then served in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
While in Nantucket, Pleasant adopted Ellen’s name, and went by Mary Ellen Williams. It was here that she learned how to run a business and adopted abolitionist beliefs and the desire for racial equality. After her years of servitude were over, the family helped her find a job in Boston where she met a wealthy Cuban mulatto abolitionist named James W. Smith, who she later married. Together the two wrote for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper and worked for the Underground Railroad by helping slaves escape from the slave South to Canada, Nova Scotia, and Mexico.
Together, they would bring slaves to Smith’s plantation in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia where they would work as paid free workers. Around 1850, James died suddenly, some suspecting it was Mary due to his restrictive tendencies. Until 1851, Mary worked the slave South by freeing slaves on her own until slave holders began looking to capture her, so she headed West to New Orleans where she lived with her new husband John James Pleasants (not related to her father) until JJ left for California to follow the gold rush where life may be better for them, leaving Mary behind to learn the Voodoo trade from Marie Laveaux through which she learned how to become a mentor and how to use riches to help the poor.
Eventually, as for being wanted again for helping slaves escape, Mary made her way to San Fran in 1852 where the gold rush was dominating the economy and culture of the city. Men, violence, and alcohol ruled the atmosphere.
Mary used two different names in order to escape the Fugitive Slave Act: Mary Smith, the white cook who served the wealthiest and most influential men in San Francisco and Mary Ellen Pleasant, the light skinned abolitionist who worked to bring justice to the black community.
While serving the influential men, she would listen to their conversations and use their secrets against them to gain privileges for blacks, a skill she learned through Voodoo. She was nicknamed “The Black City Hall” for her tactics.
Pleasant owned businesses in every area of industry, employing free blacks and giving them jobs they would not have been given in other states at the time. Eventually, European immigrants took all of these jobs away from blacks as economic depression and anti-black racism dominated the country.
Seeing the upcoming collapse, Mary returned to the East to assist John Brown’s attempt at forced abolition. That’s right, you’re reading that correctly MARY ELLEN PLEASANT FINANCED HARPER’S FERRY and all we learn about in history class is the failed attempt of the unorganized white man who wasn’t a totally horrible man, I know it’s infuriating.
Anyway, Pleasant donated $30,000 for guns for the small army John had assembled and land for slaves to live. It was an extremely risky operation if she were to be caught by authorities, as she was an extremely sought after slave liberator, and it was at this time she said her most popular quote “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward” .
Legally, Pleasant made strides for blacks in San Francisco such as the right for blacks to ride street cars without discrimination with the best lawyers in the country.
It was around this time Pleasant started to be talked poorly of, as she openly announced she was half-black and her secret love affair with a man named Thomas Bell, with whom she jointly accumulated $30 million which was put towards law suits attempting to reform the racist laws of the 1860’s.
This story is about the struggle of a light-skinned woman to both support herself as a white woman while fighting for the rights of blacks in America. She was able to use her skin color for good, using her power and wealth to give blacks on the western coast the rights they needed and deserved. She was an important part of American history who is constantly overlooked because of her race and her gender. Without her, the slave revolt led by James Brown would not have taken place and the question of abolition would have remained an afterthought in the American way of life. She is a hero and should be remembered as so, not the villain the California press made her to seem.