As I was searching the internets last week for photos of black women with white children, I stumbled upon a historical figure who, once again, I am shocked and dismayed to never before have heard mention of: Mary Ellen (“Mammy”) Pleasant. I want to know so much more! Or at least the truth. I highly doubt that Mary Ellen needed to conjure the dark forces to leverage social change, however I’m sure that that tale eased the minds of the opposition and provided ammunition for attacking Pleasant’s ideals. I found quite a few intriguing articles on her life and chose the following two to share. Honestly, when someone next asks me who (dead or alive) I would most like to have dinner with, Mary Ellen Pleasant will be on the short list.
“American civil rights began in the 1850’s with Mary Ellen Pleasant.” Racism surprised African Americans like Pleasant who came to the Bay Area because they believed in a better life in San Francisco… The Bay Area, where Pleasant lived, became a “hotbed of civil rights activity” in the 19th century and the activists’ rallying cry was “eradicating slavery.”- Dr. Albert Broussard
Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814? – 1904)
Mary Ellen Pleasant is perhaps better known as “Mammy Pleasant”, but it was a name she detested. She was born a slave in Georgia some time between 1814 and 1817, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved Vodou priestess from Haiti and a Virginia governor’s son, John Pleasants. She was bought out of slavery by a planter and indentured for nine years as a store clerk with abolitionist Quakers in Massachusetts.
Around 1841 she married a wealthy mulatto merchant/contractor from Ohio and Philadelphia named James Smith, who was also a slave rescuer on the Underground Railroad. The two worked to help slaves flee to safety in Canada and safe states. Smith died in 1844, leaving her a $45,000 fortune and a plantation run by freedmen near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
Because of slaver reaction to her own ongoing Underground Railroad activities, she was forced to flee to New Orleans in 1850 where she met the Vodou queen Marie Laveau who trained her in how to “pressure the powerful to help the powerless” —blacks and poor women—gain rights and jobs. She then went to San Francisco, arriving in April 1852. Because she had no “freedom papers” she passed herself off as white, while she worked as a steward and cook in a white boardinghouse and invested in real estate and various business activities.
Pleasant’s training with Marie Laveau proved beneficial. Pleasant became so successful at leveraging social change that many called her San Francisco’s “Black City Hall”. Her activities and her money helped ex-slaves avoid extradition, start businesses and find employment in hotels, homes and on the steamships and railroads of California.
In 1858 she returned to the East, bought land to house escaped slaves, and aided abolitionist John Brown both with money and by riding in advance of his famous raid at Harper’s Ferry encouraging slaves to join him.
She went back to San Francisco where her investments with an influential business partner helped her amass a joint fortune estimated at $30 million. She later led the Franchise League movement in San Francisco that earned blacks the right to testify in court, and to ride the trolleys. Her lawsuit in 1868 in San Francisco against the North Beach and Mission RailRoad was used as a precedent in 1982 to achieve contemporary civil rights. Mary Ellen Pleasant died in San Francisco in 1904. Her body was taken by friends to Napa and buried in Tulocay Cemetery. On her tombstone is inscribed “the mother of civil rights in California.”
For more information, incuding a book on Mary Ellen Pleasant by Susheel Bibbs, see http://hometown.aol.com/mepleasant.
“Mammy Pleasant: Angel or Arch Fiend in the House of Mystery?”
Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant’s legacy is an enigma rolled up inside layers of legend, gossip, greed, fantasy, racism and conjecture.
This week’s column title first headlined Sunday’s edition of the San Francisco Call—back on May 7, 1899. That 19th century investigative hit piece featured three unflattering John Clawson illustrations portraying “Mammy Pleasant” as a bonneted evil-eyed crone. The story gobbled up the entire front page of that day’s paper. Its “Angel or Arch Fiend” dualism embodies endless confusion and contradictory assertions surrounding the life of this incredible woman—confusion and contradictions lingering on to this very day.
The “Mammy” tag, clearly meant to be a slam, fits neatly within a cluster of Black stereotypes. While Pleasant’s tall, thin frame, her finely honed features and regal bearing contrast sharply with the rotund happy-to-be-a-slave mammy of plantation lore, the name itself attempts to place her on par with a Samba, an Uncle Tom, Step and Fetchit, or to a licentious Jezebel. The mythology of these “halcyon days” of slavery is what social historian Eric Lott calls “the dialectic flickering of racial insult and racial envy.”
Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant’s legacy is an enigma rolled up inside layers of legend, gossip, greed, fantasy, racism and conjecture. She’s been called “San Francisco’s Powerful And Sinister Ruler”, “The Black City Hall”, but also a “one woman social agency” and “the Mother of Civil Rights in California.” That covers one heck of a lot of reputational territory.
Some claim that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a mixed blood Voodoo Queen who aimed “the black arts” against her enemies, that she sold babies, murdered as many as 49 people, ran brothels, committed fraud, spied through walls on victims she would later blackmail, and that she held unholy powers over a vast network of underlings and protégés. One rival charged that Pleasant murdered the rival’s husband, and having accomplished the dastardly deed Pleasant then “put her fingers in the hole in the top of his head and pulled out the protruding brains.”
Others tout Mary Ellen Pleasant’s work as a philanthropist, her many devoted friends, both black and white, her financial wizardry, undying devotion to women’s and civil rights, and, before that—her commitment to the abolition of slavery. In fact, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Napa gravestone reads—“SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN.”
Indeed, upon Brown’s capture following his ill-fated attack on Harper’s Ferry he carried with him a promissory note signed MEP. Had not the authorities misread the letter M for a W its certain Mary Ellen Pleasant’s neck would have been stretched as did John Brown’s.
Everything about Pleasant’s formative years is subject to debate. She was born a slave in Virginia, or Georgia, or perhaps it was Louisiana. She claims to have been born free in Philadelphia on August 19, 1814. Others say she was born in 1817, give or take a year—or two. She was convent educated, or else was entirely self-taught. Her mother may have been a West Indies Voodoo Queen, or not. Her father was a wealthy white slave owner. Then again, perhaps he was a slave. Nobody knows for sure.
What we do know is that sometime between 1848 and 1852 Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in San Francisco. She may have been accompanied by her second husband, a former slave named James Pleasant, or Pleasants, or perhaps it was Pleasance. Whatever his surname it’s clear that the shrewd, focused and ambitious Mary Ellen was a power unto herself.
James, who died in 1877, seems hardly to have factored into Mary Ellen’s life. His one notable contribution was in the co-creation of Mary Ellen’s one and only child, Elizabeth, whom she called Lizzy. However, Mary Ellen gave their daughter her first husband’s family name, which was Smith. It was only fair, since James Henry Smith had left seed money to Mary Ellen upon his death some years before. Mary Ellen built her financial empire with the help of these funds.
Once in San Francisco, Pleasant set about purchasing boardinghouses, real estate, laundries, restaurants and stock shares in mines, railroads and other business ventures. This was no small accomplishment in an era of near unfettered legal bias against both racial minorities and women. Monies from these investments built her the 30-room mansion dubbed “the House of Mystery,” atop Cathedral Hill in San Francisco.
In her later years Pleasant purchased a large tract of land set against the Mayacamas Mountains. She named it Beltane, either after Thomas Bell, or, as some critics claim, in honor of the ancient pagan celebration of the same name. Beltane lies outside Glen Ellen, in the heart of the Sonoma Valley. The stately New Orleans-style Victorian house she built there (now a B&B) is set amidst an immense flowering garden and hundreds of shady oaks. One fanciful claim is that Pleasant cast Voodoo spells from a cave somewhere on the property.
But with all her accrued wealth, Mary Ellen Pleasant seems always to have performed, or dressed as if she performed, domestic labor. It’s said that she would ride to the markets in her own custom built carriage, accompanied by a driver and a footman, each garbed in impeccable livery. Though always attired in a servant’s black dress and large white apron, she “walked like a duchess.”
Sometime in the mid 1860s Mary Ellen Pleasant hooked up with a stockbroker named Thomas Bell. The “canny Scot” was money savvy, but lacked imagination. Pleasant took him under her wing. Together they created one of the largest financial partnerships in that era of San Francisco. Pleasant and Bell may (or may not) have been lovers.
It’s said that Mary Ellen arranged Thomas’s marriage to the future Teresa Bell, having first instructed Teresa in the “genteel arts” necessary to flourish in elite society. Others say Thomas Bell discovered the beautiful Teresa on a visit to a house of ill repute. No matter which story is true it seems the marriage provided adequate cover from charges of miscegenation, which might otherwise have been leveled at the cohabitation of the white Thomas Bell with the octoroon (or perhaps quadroon) “Mammy” Pleasant.
What’s undeniably true is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, and that she placed both former slaves and geographically displaced freemen as domestics in many of San Francisco’s “better” households. She also clearly advocated for and personally rescued unprotected and often attractive young white women, who Mary Ellen then trained to become the wives and mistresses of wealthy men in The City.
These actions led to many of the questionable charges against her, since persons beholden to Pleasant for their livelihoods provided her their eyes and ears within San Francisco’s most prominent households.
Mary Ellen was well into her 80’s when her finances began to unravel. She’d both overextended her business dealings, and had incurred the wrath of her former protege, Teresa Bell. Mary Ellen had exposed Teresa’s young lover to embezzlement charges, landing him a stint in San Quentin prison. As payback, the mentally unhinged Teresa became Pleasant’s eternal foe. She set to pummeling Pleasant’s good name—even long after seeing Mary Ellen to her grave. The sensitive nature of Thomas Bell’s and Mary Ellen Pleasant’s financial partnership allowed Teresa to gain control of their mutual resources following Thomas’ death. As a result Mary Ellen Pleasant was stripped of her wealth and forced into bankruptcy.
Pleasant’s diaries were stolen and lost to posterity, while many of Teresa’s hallucinatory rants made their way into newsprint following Pleasant’s death. Consequently, Teresa Bell’s accounts fundamentally shifted the Mary Ellen Pleasant mythos into the realm of evil phantasma. Fortunately, contemporary scholars have begun setting Mary Ellen Pleasant’s record as straight as a story with such twists, squiggles and gaping holes can be set. As confusing and contradictory as her life story may be, Mary Ellen Pleasant optimistically forecast her own legacy when she wrote:
“… You can’t explain away the truth.”