Mary Ellen Pleasant

M.E. Pleasant 1857

Photograph of Mary Ellen Pleasant. Courtesy Holdredge Collection, San Francisco Public Library History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Mary Ellen Pleasant's beginnings are dubious with many different accounts surrounding her birth. She could possibly have been a former slave from Georgia or the daughter of a Louisiana slave and an Asian or Native American. Historians place her birth year around 1812. Pleasant amassed her first fortune following the death of her first husband who left her a considerable amount of money. However, it was in the West, after following her second husband to San Francisco, that Pleasant left a legacy of civil rights activism. Pleasant was an exceptional businesswoman who at different points in her life was a real estate tycoon, restaurateur, and boardinghouse owner. Her accumulation of wealth allowed her to participate in abolitionist work. Pleasant was rumored to have assisted in funding John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry--a note was found in his pocket after the raid’s failure that pledged money signed W.E.P with many historian believing that Pleasant intentionally miswrote her first initial.[1] At her request her tombstone reads, “A friend of John Brown,” supporting this claim.[2]

Pleasant’s suing of North Beach and Mission Railroad Company had lasting effects on legal justice for the Black citizens of San Francisco. In 1866, Pleasant filed suit against the company when she was clearly told that the company did not accept Blacks on their streetcars. At the time, San Francisco did not have explicit segregation laws for the streetcar transportation system. Unable to testify in court due to the ban on Black testimony against white persons, Pleasant was able to move forward in her case because of the white witnesses present who could speak in court on her behalf as the conductor had loudly stated the racial policies of the company. Pleasant was awarded damages, but the case was appealed and taken to the California Supreme Court, where the lower court’s decision was overturned because Pleasant had not proved, “that the company had a policy excluding Blacks or that the conductor’s actions had been racially motivated.”[3] Nevertheless, this case was successful in that it forced the courts to restate that California had no laws that allowed public carriers, which included streetcars, to exclude anyone based on race.

While her civil rights accomplishments are to be lauded there has been much speculation about the later end of Pleasant’s life and her relationship to a wealthy San Franciscan. This speculation is the result of racial biases meant to discredit her work. While employed to Thomas Bell, a wealthy white man involved in banking and real estate, Pleasant was thought to exert control over Bell and his home. Bell died by falling down the staircase, though many blamed Pleasant for his murder. However, the coroner ruled it an accidental death. Bell's demise fueled rumors of Pleasant’s practice of voodoo, a charge clearly originating in racial hate and sexism. Pleasant maintained her influence on the home following Bell’s death though she eventually left after a disagreement with family member Theresa Bell.[4] Mary Ellen Pleasant made the headlines again with the much publicized case of Sarah Althea Hill and former senator William Sharon. Hill claimed to be the wife of Sharon and sued for divorce. Pleasant supported Hill during this case and after it, when Hill was sent to an insane asylum. The conventional representation of Pleasant as a "mammy" was reinforced by press coverage of this event because of the emphasis on the care that Pleasant provided: "she nursed her in the Bell house as tenderly as a mother would her child.”[5]

Despite her earlier resources, Pleasant died in 1904 apparently penniless after a long life surrounded by speculation and rumor. Yet, Pleasant’s legacy today has afforded her the title of “mother of civil rights in California.”[6]