Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pleasant Stories from an Unpleasant Beginning: The Many Lives of Mary Ellen Pleasant

By Andrea Downing

Mary Ellen Pleasant
It never ceases to amaze me how some people can cram in about three lifetimes of a normal person into their one. I constantly feel as if I just haven’t done enough living. And doing the research on Mary Ellen Pleasant made me feel like that, especially as there are so many conflicting stories.
Pleasant was born either in Philadelphia, which she claimed in her autobiography, or Virginia, either in 1812 or 1814 (you begin to see the problem here, right?) either to a LA African American woman and a Kanaka Hawaiian father or to the son of the Governor of VA and a Haitian voodoo priestess in VA, or into slavery in GA. My pick is the first one. No matter, at some stage (aged between 10 & 13) she was sent to Nantucket RI as a bonded servant to the Hussey family, Quaker abolitionists who ran a store. There she not only met many abolitionists on this stop on the Underground Railway but she learned how to act with people, studying men and women, their manners and speech.
Sometime in the 1840s, when Mary was in her twenties, she had worked out her contract and the Husseys helped her obtain a position in Boston working for a tailor. She also became a paid soloist in a church where she met and eventually married James Henry Smith. While Smith was of mixed race—part mulatto Cuban, part white—both he and Mary were able to pass as white. Smith was a flour contractor and also had inherited a plantation near Harper’s Ferry from his white father (where he had freed his own slaves). A wealthy man, he was also an abolitionist, working a track on the Underground Railroad that took runaway slaves up to Nova Scotia. However much he believed in free men, he was apparently somewhat restrictive of Mary and some believe she was ‘responsible’ for his death four years after they wed. Whatever the truth of that, he certainly left her a fortune in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Mary continued her abolitionist work. There is some evidence to support her life as a ‘slave stealer,’ masquerading as a jockey and taking enslaved persons to freedom. But in 1848 she married another abolitionist, John James Pleasant, and with slavers after them, they went first to New Orleans where Pleasant had family, including, apparently, Marie Laveau. Then it was on to San Francisco around 1852.  West at last!
The Gold Rush had begun and with women at a premium, Mary saw her opportunity to make more money. She continued to pass as white in order to avoid California’s Fugitive Slave Act. She initially worked as a boarding house steward and cook but eventually opened various dining establishments for miners, moving on to restaurants for wealthy and influential men. There she picked up tidbits of gossip helping her to make various investments in the surging economy, in everything from laundries to Wells Fargo. She also anticipated the need for oil and invested in that. She teamed up with a young Scots banking clerk, Thomas Bell, whom she had met on the ship to CA, and together they made millions. This association would have benefitted Mary in not bringing her finances to the attention of the white populace. It would have been difficult for her as a black woman to make such investments. Her husband, J.J., passed away in 1877, by which time Mary had changed her ethnicity in the city directory to black--the Civil War was over!
Pleasant in her later years

But let’s back-track for a moment. From 1857 to 1859 Mary returned east to help John Brown in his cause.  She donated some thirty thousand dollars to his abolitionist movement. When Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859, a note was found in his pocket: ‘The ax is lain at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money to help.’ It was believed at the time it had been written by some northerner but Mary Ellen Pleasant was apparently the author.
When she and another black woman were forcibly ejected from a San Francisco streetcar in 1866, she sued both the streetcar company and the city.  Her case was won although the damages awarded her were reversed.  Still, that case was used as precedent to win another suit as late as 1983. Further lawsuits in San Francisco depleted her fortune, including one brought by the  
The Bell/Pleasant home around 1870
widow of Thomas Bell, who had started a smear campaign against her. Pleasant and Bell’s fortunes were so entwined that when he passed, there was no telling who owned what. His widow, being white, won the case and left Pleasant with a greatly depleted bank account.
Mary Ellen died in reduced circumstances in 1904.
Pleasant is considered the Mother of California Civil Rights.  She had been befriended by the Sherwood family and is buried in their family plot in Napa, CA, with a brass plaque to mark the spot.  The site of her former mansion, now demolished, is marked with a small park in San Francisco, which also has a Mary Ellen Pleasant Day. She has been mentioned in numerous literary works as well as in films.
In 1965, her gravestone was amended with a line she had requested on her deathbed, 'A Friend of John Brown.’

First photo provenance unknown
2nd photo public domain via wikimedia
3rd photo courtesy SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library,  SFG City Guides


K. Lyn Wurth said...

Wow! What an amazing woman. Thank you for telling us about her. I greatly enjoyed this post.

Betty McCreary said...

Very interesting story! Yes, it is amazing how much some people do in their lives. I like how you put in the conflicting stories of her origins.

Andrea Downing said...

Hi Kelly, thanks for your kind words. I thought she was important to note--not exactly a Harriet Tubman of goodness, more a business woman who followed her beliefs. Thanks for stopping by.

Andrea Downing said...

Betty, there was a load of conflicting stuff in the histories I read so I didn't feel it was for me to make judgement calls. I did, however, decide to leave out--though I'm saying it now--that she was eventually called "Mammy Pleasant"--a very UNpleasant soubriquet which she loathed.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

The lives some people lead! And to cross paths with figures in history like Marie Laveau and John Brown. Thanks for bringing her to our attention. I never heard of her, but now I want to look into her story more.

Andrea Downing said...

Patti, I thought she was a very interesting character--sort of the Rosa Parks of CA if you like, having brought a case for being throw off a trolley. Anyway, I'm glad to have brought her to this group's attention.

Arletta Dawdy said...

Hi Andi,
I wrote a post About Mary Ellen for the Sweethearts of the West blog recently. She was a fascinating character deserving of all the attention we can bring to her!

Andrea Downing said...

Arletta, what a great coincidence. I just googled your name with Pleasant's and it came up. I hadn't heard of Beltane Ranch so you have one up on me! Thanks for stopping by.