Little Known Black History Fact: Mary Ellen Pleasant

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  • Mary Ellen Pleasant, a.k.a “Mammy Pleasant,” was an abolitionist, millionaire and conductor of the Underground Railroad. From Nantucket, Massachusetts and born around 1814, Pleasant earned a reputation as the “Mother of Human and Civil Rights in California.” She stated in her memoirs that she was born a slave to a voodoo priestess and the youngest son of Virginia Governor, James Pleasant.

    Pleasant worked in bondage at 10 years old for the Hussey Family until her contract was completed. Maintaining her relationship with the Husseys, Pleasant used her connections to free slaves. She and her first husband, James White, both physically passed as white people and took on the profession of being “slave stealers.”

    In an 1866 case, Pleasant fought her ejection from a city streetcar in Pleasant vs. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company. The court ruled in her favor and segregation was outlawed in public conveyances. She set a huge precedent for the California Supreme Court.

    During the Gold Rush, and after husband James White died, Pleasant remarried, but kept telling those around her that she was a white woman. She worked at the Cape and Heiser men’s restaurant in San Francisco and during her shifts, she listened to financial tips and gossip from the rich white men. Pleasant befriended a man named Thomas Bell at the local bank. Using Bell’s financial advice, she and her second husband were said to have made a fortune worth over $30 million.

    Unfortunately, Pleasant's name was smeared in a nasty 1884 court battle involving Thomas Bell, where his widow, citing a marriage scandal between Bell and Pleasant, sued her. During that time Pleasant was nicknamed “mammy” in the newspapers.

    Despite her personal battles, Pleasant used her money to support black leaders all over the country. That’s how she earned her second nickname, of “The Black City Hall.”

    Pleasant died in 1904 and was buried at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, CA.
     

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