Mary Ellen Pleasant: The Mother of Civil Rights in California

Mary Ellen Pleasant
Before coming to San Francisco, Mary Ellen had a very eventful life. This African-American activist was a financial backer of the Abolitionist movement and played an active role in the Underground Railroad. 

Her second husband, James Smith, was an African American man who was passing as white. He had already freed his slaves, and the two of them worked hard in the abolitionist movement. After his death, she began a marriage/partnership with John James Pleasant which eventually led them to New Orleans where she became fast friends with Marie Laveau's husband and often took advice from the great voodoo priestess herself.

The California Gold Rush is what eventually brought James and Mary Ellen to San Francisco. The possibilities for wealth were limitless.  When she stepped off the boat at Yerba Buena Island, she registered herself as white, and as such landed jobs managing some of the more exclusive eateries in the city.  While performing her duties, she often overheard tidbits of financial gossip and used them to invest wisely and grow her personal wealth. By 1885, Thomas, who found success in quicksilver, and Mary Ellen had created a 30 million dollar fortune. Unfortunately, Thomas did not live long after this, passing away in 1887 of diabetes. Instead of staying at home and mourning the death of her husband, Mary Ellen hit the trail with John Brown and for the next two years worked tirelessly to attain civil rights for African Americans.

San Francisco called her back in 1879, and this time she came out as a black woman. The African-Americans in San Francisco knew of Mary Ellen's true race all along, but very few white people knew this secret. When she came back and declared herself black, there were some who were very shocked.  After her return to the city, She fought a series of court cases around civil rights for African Americans and often won.

Mary Ellen worked hard all her life for human rights and a better life for everyone, but she did not have a spotless reputation. There were always rumors surrounding her, including that she was the daughter of a voodoo priestess and a Virginia governor. Her relationship with Thomas and Teresa Bell did not help. Teresa was Mary Ellen's friend and business associate. When Teresa got married, Mary Ellen built her a huge $100,000 mansion as a wedding present and then lived in it with the wedded couple. The ornate residence and formal gardens occupied a large space at 1661 Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter. The exact arrangement of their living conditions was not openly discussed, but it appears that Mary Ellen ran the household, including all of the financial obligations. Soon, Thomas and Teresa had a falling out, and on October 15th, 1892 while Thomas was suffering from an illness, it is reported that in the middle of the night he called out "Where am I?" and crashed to the basement floor from a second story landing, dying soon after. At the time, it was believed to be an accident.

Shortly after the death of Thomas, Mary Ellen and Teresa found themselves in court fighting over his estate. The peculiar circumstances of the marriage and relationship were alluded to in court, and the rumors started to fly in the newspapers. Teresa set out on a campaign to destroy Mary Ellen's name by calling her a voodoo priestess, a baby stealer, a baby eater, and a multiple murderess. Teresa was successful in her smear campaign and eventually won the house and evicted Mary Ellen.

Probably most disturbing to Mary Ellen about the whole ordeal is that Teresa was able to tag her publicly with the title of "Mammy."  For the rest of her life she was often referred to, especially in the press, as "Mammy" Pleasant, a title which she abhorred.

She passed away on January 4th, 1904.  She was a great woman of action who used her success to help many people.  RIP Mary Ellen Pleasant, 1817 - 1904.  

Source: Wikipedia & Historic Walks in San Francisco, by Rand Richards