Meet Mary Pleasant – The Mother Of Civil Rights in California

Mary Pleasant

I researched Mrs. Pleasant’s story using the following link, http://www.mepleasant.com/story.html. As always feel free to check it out for more detailed information. Special thanks to Susheel Bibbs (aka Cheryl Susheel Bibbs) for bringing her story to life!


Called “the Mother of Civil Rights in California” from work begun in the 1860s, her achievements went unsurpassed until the 1960s. Pleasant 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. Her dramatic life was part of the story of slavery, abolition, the gold rush, and the Civil War; she helped shape early San Francisco, and covertly amassed a joint fortune once assessed at $30,000,000! Americans today deserve to know her because she could love across boundaries of race and class without losing sight of her goal — equality for herself and her people.

According to her various memoirs, Pleasant, was born a slave near Augusta, Georgia between 1814 and 1817, and 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 slave rescue work in the East. However, the courage to do that and other great deeds started in childhood.

At birth, Mary had no last name. In her first memoir she said that she was born the illegitimate child of a Virginia governor’s son (John H. Pleasants) and an enslaved Haitian voodoo* priestess, so Mary had to create names for herself. After witnessing the death of her mother at the hand of a plantation overseer, Mary had to make her way largely on her own. But, how did she emerge strong and able to love across racial lines from such difficult beginnings?

An account by Nevada writer Sam Davis, one of Pleasant’s biographers, infers that, in childhood, Pleasant was bought out of slavery by a sympathetic planter. No one really knows his name or if it this is true since Pleasant was a survivor who altered and embellished her story in several memoirs to offset the criticisms levied against her. However, her final memoir (Davis, 1901) says that this rescuer sent her first to New Orleans to work as a linen worker at the Ursaline Convent and subsequently to work as a free servant for his friend (Louis Alexander Williams), a merchant in Cincinnati. His promise was that, after she served the Williams for some time without pay, she would be freed. However, Williams, in debt and ultimately jealous of his wife Ellen’s affection for the girl, eventually placed Mary, not in freedom, but into nine years of indenture (Mary called it being “bounded out.”) with an aging Quaker merchant, (merely called Grandma Hussey) in Nantucket, MA. Indentured servants could be of any race, and Mary, a mulatto child who in her earlier years was very fair, was told not to reveal her race — a heavy burden for a girl of about eleven.

In Nantucket, Mary adopted Ellen Williams’ name, becoming “Mary Ellen Williams,” and she learned business as a clerk in Grandma’s general (huckster) 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] would set them down and they would be right as I remembered ’em.” Mary grew smart and witty, and despite being “in service”, she grew to love her Quaker guardians. The Husseys, and later Capt. Edward W. Gardner and family, reveal in their letters that they grew to love her too. Mary also adopted abolitionist beliefs and the principles of equality that they taught her. So, in Nantucket Mary learned enterprise, equality, and love— In Nantucket, she took the shackles of slavery off of her mind!

Later in the 1840’s, when her 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. There Mary Ellen Williams soon met and married James W. Smith, a wealthy mulatto. According to a letter fragment by Mary (letter dictated to Mrs. S), James (part Cuban-mulatto, part white) was a contractor/ merchant who “passed” for white (Cuban) so as to serve as a Southern contributor to William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper and a rescuer on the Underground Railroad. Soon both Smiths served on that Railroad — the trackless series of homes and volunteers who helped slaves escape to freedom by various routes (tracks) to Canada, Nova Scotia, and Mexico.

James Smith’s “track ” took slaves from Nova Scotia to Virginia. He also owned a plantation near Harper’s Ferry, left to him by his white father. Smith staffed it with freed slaves (freedmen), whose freedom he helped secure. However, daring as he was, James was very restrictive of Mary. She says she still grew to love him. However, when he died suddenly (sometime between 1844 and 1848) some felt that it was by Mary’s hand. Nothing ever came of this accusation, however, but James Smith left Mary a wealthy woman. She eventually remarried, but she continued their slave-rescue work between New Bedford, MA, and Ohio out of her own inner calling. Mary says that, disguising herself as a jockey so that she could steal onto plantations, she soon became a much-hunted slave rescuer, and there is some support for this account.

Finally, in 1851, with slavers hot on her trail, she fled West. The route taken between 1848-1851 seems to have carried her to hide out in both Nantucket and New Orleans. In the latter, she lived with her second husband, John James Pleasance (“J.J. Pleasants” when Anglicized). Pleasants was not related to her father, John Pleasants, as some have alleged. In fact he told friends that the Pleasants name had simply been assigned to his father and that his real name surname was “Christophe.”

Once in New Orleans, JJ., a ship’s cook, took off to scout a safer life for them in California gold-rush country, but Mary stayed behind to own up her heritage by studying with the social/activist Voodoo Queen Mam’zelle. Marie LaVeaux. LaVeaux had invented a way to use Voodoo to aid the disenfranchised, and Mary, who should have inherited a voodoo priestancy from her mother, wanted to learn it. Said the only eye witness of this study, LaVeaux’s granddaughter, “She (LaVeaux) was teachin’ Mrs. Pleasants Voodoo so she could use it some way.” So, from Mam’zelle LaVeaux Mary learned to mentor her people and to use the secrets of the rich to gain aid for the poor — a “model” that would serve her well in San Francisco. Soon JJ sent for her (and her money, which, said Mary, he loved as much as he loved her), and being again hunted for slave rescuing, she fled to San Francisco, assisted by Marie LaVeaux.

Mary arrived in rough an’ ready San Francisco on April 7, 1852– a place with about 40,000 people, 700 drinking and gambling establishments, and 5 murders every 6 days. There were six men to every woman. It was not a safe place, but Mary was up to the challenge. Once there, 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. Mary had no papers. Still Mary, both as “Mrs.Ellen Smith” (white boardinghouse steward/cook) and as “Mrs. Pleasants” (abolitionist/entrepreneur) helped her people. As Mrs. Smith, she served the wealthiest and most influential men in San Francisco, and using their regard for her as well as the “LaVeaux model” of leveraging their secrets for favors, she was able to get jobs and privileges for “colored” people in San Francisco. It is said that for this they nicknamed her “The Black City Hall.”

In the “colored” community, in her true identity as Mrs. Pleasants, 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 and JJ bought land on Campbell St. to help Brown house the slaves that he planned to free near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His plan was to capture the Federal arsenal there with only 21 men. He would set up maroon-like militia made up of runaway slaves throughout the Virginia Mountains, as the Haitians had done. Then, he would ferret 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, Mary (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 Mary narrowly escaped with her life. On her return, however (hunted for treason), 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. In 1883 she even helped challenge the powerful Senator William Sharon in a scandalous case in the cause of Human Rights – She backed the plaintiff financially. Despite the fact that the plaintiff eventually lost this case, and Pleasant eventually lost most of her wealth, and even her good name through twists of fate, treachery, and the press, her legacy of love and courage lives on. In fact, her 1868 Trolley case set precedent in the California Supreme Court and was used to win a case in that same court in 1983. Pleasant was a winner!

Ginger’s Thought’s – This woman was awesome! Well she had to be; her last name is PLEASANT!

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