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Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant 1814 - 1904
Mary Ellen Pleasant was noted as a financial genius and the "mother of the civil rights struggle in California." There is some question as to her actual place and year of birth. She claimed, "I was born in Philadelphia, August 19, 1814." She lived a mysterious life, and records regarding her life are full of conflicting accounts. However, all documents confirm that she went to California during the Gold Rush days and became highly influential and very wealthy.
Legend has depicted her in many guises: as a blackmailer, procuress, civil rights activist, and as an important financial backer of the noted abolitionist, John Brown. Whatever her real story may be, it is clear that she was a black woman of unusual force and ability. It is said that her freedom was bought by a Mr. Price, who sent her to Boston to be educated. There, she became acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison and other prominent abolitionists. Also, she met and married Alexander Smith, described as a Cuban planter who, after his death, left her a substantial legacy of $45,000, asking that she use the money to aid the abolitionists' cause.
About 1849, she and her second husband, John Pleasant, went west to San Francisco where she promptly went into business. Mary Ellen Pleasant, referring to as "Mammy Pleasant" behind her back, opened and successfully operated a string of fashionable boardinghouses and restaurants. Among her boarders, it is reported, were men who financial advice to many of her clients who, after taking her advice, enjoying substantial financial success.
The business accomplishments of Mammy Pleasant in no way diminished her support of the black struggle. She aided and hid fugitive slaves. She often made special trips to rural areas to rescue slaves who were being held illegally by masters. She challenged California's Jim Crow laws. She was instrumental in passing of legislative act in 1863, giving blacks the right of testimony in court. She was especially active in establishing the right of blacks to ride in streetcars. It is recorded in California's court records and newspapers that she filed a suit bringing action against two trolley lines whose conductors had refused her passage. It is further alleged that she went north to Canada in 1858 and donated $30,000 to John Brown to aid in the raid.
In 1904, Mary Ellen Pleasant died in the home of friends in San Francisco. Some say she left an estate in excess of $300,000 to those who cared for her in her declining years.
Excerpt from A Salute to Historic Black Women.
This is only a summary of the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant.