The Mother of Civil Rights In California
I consider myself astute and well versed in the study of Afro-American history, we have all heard of Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and Frederick Douglas. We have learned about their amazing feats and their heroic efforts in the era of the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad. Here is the account of one woman’s bravery and courage that not many people have ever heard of, please let me introduce you to Mary Ellen Pleasants. ” Let us give credit where credit due!!! ”
Called “the Mother of Civil Rights in California” from work she initiated in the 1860s, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s achievements in the struggle for the rights of Black people and women went unsurpassed until the 1960s. Pleasants was once the most talked-about woman in San Francisco.
When other African Americans were rarely mentioned, she claimed full-page articles in the press. She helped shape early San Francisco, and covertly amassed a joint fortune once assessed at $30,000,000.
Pleasants was born a slave near Augusta, Georgia in 1814, the daughter of Virginia governor John H. Pleasants’ son, John H. Pleasant, Jr. and an enslaved Haitian Vodoun priestess.
After witnessing the death of her mother at the cruel hands of a plantation overseer, Mary Pleasants had to make her way through life largely on her own.
Pleasant dropped the ‘s’ in her last name, changing it to ‘Pleasant’ and fled to New Orleans, where she found employment as a linen worker at the Ursaline Convent. A short time later, she went to work as a free servant for a Louis Alexander Williams, a merchant in Cincinnati. Williams promised that, after Mary served the Williams family for some time without pay, she would be freed legally.
However, Williams, in debt and ultimately jealous of his wife Ellen’s affection for young Mary Pleasant, eventually placed her into nine years of indentured servitude with an aging Quaker merchant known only as Grandma Hussey. Indentured servants could be of any race, and Pleasant, a child of mixed parentage, who in her earlier years was of a very light complexion, was told not to reveal her race – a heavy burden for a girl of about eleven.
Pleasant adopted Ellen Williams’ name, becoming “Mary Ellen Williams” and she learned business as a clerk in Grandma Hussey’s general store. Although she could not read or write then, she said in her final memoir, “I could recall the accounts of a whole day, and she [Grandma Hussey] would set them down and they would be right as I remembered ‘em.”
Pleasant grew smart and witty, and adopted abolitionist beliefs and the principles of equality that those beliefs taught her. Later in the 1840′s, when her indentured service had ended, the Husseys helped the brilliant and talented twenty-something, young woman, become a tailor’s assistant in Boston. She also became a paid church soloist there.
Mary Ellen Williams soon met and married James W. Smith, a wealthy free Black who passed for white, so as to serve as a Southern contributor to William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Soon both Smiths served on that Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada, Nova Scotia, and Mexico. James Smith owned a plantation near Harper’s Ferry, left to him by his white father. Smith staffed it with freed slaves, whose freedom he helped secure.
Smith died suddenly in 1844, leaving Mary Ellen a wealthy woman. She eventually remarried, but she continued her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad between New Bedford, MA, and Ohio out of her own inner calling. She soon became a much-hunted slave rescuer. Finally, in 1851, with slavers hot on her trail, she fled West.
According to ships records and confirming testimony, she arrived in San Francisco in April, 1852 to escape persecution under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, for helping hundreds of slaves escape.
Before her arrival in what would become her permanent home, however, Mary Ellen stayed a year in New Orleans, continuing her studies of Vodoun she originally began with her mother with the Voodoo Queen, Mam’zelle Marie Laveau.
From Mam’zelle Laveau, Mary not only learned the herbal remedies and rituals of Vodoun, but also how to mentor her people and to manipulate the secrets of the rich to gain aid for the poor – a ‘model’ that would serve her well in San Francisco. After her intensive training was complete, Mary Ellen fled to San Francisco, assisted by Marie Laveau.
San Francisco was a rough and tumble, fast-paced place, inhabited by 40,000 people, and home to 700 drinking and gambling establishments, and 5 murders every 6 days.
In addition to those staggering statistics for that time, there were six men to every woman. San Francisco was not a safe place, but Mary Ellen Pleasant was up to the challenge. She was forced to use two identities to thwart capture under California’s Fugitive Slave Act.
Under this law anyone without freedom papers could be captured and sent into slavery. Pleasant had no papers, So she lived as both “Mrs. Ellen Smith”, a white boardinghouse steward / cook and as “Mrs. Pleasants”, an abolitionist / entrepreneur).
As Mrs. Smith, she served the wealthiest and most influential men in San Francisco and using their regard for her as well as the “Laveau model” of leveraging their secrets for favors, she was able to get jobs and privileges for “colored” people in San Francisco. It is this work that earned her the nickname “The Black City Hall”.
In the “colored” community, in her true identity as Mrs. Pleasant, she used her money to help ex-slaves fight unfair laws and to get lawyers or businesses in California. She became an expert capitalist, owning every kind of business imaginable, and she prospered.
However, her people suffered as European immigrations took the menial jobs once held for them and as anti-black sentiment and national depression mounted. So, in 1858 Mary decided to return East – not to live, but – as she once said in a letter – to help her former brother in law gain release from slavery and to help abolitionist John Brown end slavery forever.
In Canada, she bought land on Campbell Street, near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to help John Brown house the slaves that he planned to free. John Brown’s plan was to capture the Federal arsenal there with only 21 men. He would set up a maroon-like militia, made up of runaway slaves throughout the Virginia Mountains, as the Haitians had done.
Then, he would shuttle some slaves from there to Canada. Mary gave Brown money for arms and came back the following fall to ride – in disguise as a jockey – in advance of Brown to alert slaves near Harper’s Ferry of his coming. It was a good, but risky, plan, but, unlike some other Black leaders, Pleasant, believing that slavery had to be ended by force, was willing to help.
“I’d rather be a corpse than a coward,” was always her motto. Of course, Brown acted too soon and was hanged, and Pleasant narrowly escaped with her life.
On her return to California, however, she continued to fight, and after the Emancipation Proclamation and the California Right-of-Testimony of 1863 law, she declared her race openly. She orchestrated court battles to test the right of testimony, and in 1868 her battle for the right of Blacks to ride the San Francisco trolleys without fear of discrimination set precedent in the California Supreme Court.
Mary Pleasant went on to become celebrated as a philanthropist and business woman and to amass a $30,000,000 fortune with her secret partner, Scotsman, Thomas Bell and today, the Voodoo Queen of California’s legacy of love and courage lives on.