Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mother of the California Civil Rights Movement
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born to an enslaved mother and a father who was the son of Virginia Governor, James Pleasant.
Eventually Mary Ellen went on to marry a Virginia plantation-owner and abolitionist named James W. Smith and together they spent the 1830's and 1840's smuggling hundreds of slaves to Canada as couriers along the Underground Railroad. After her husband passed away in 1844, Mary Ellen continued to help slaves to escape to freedom.
Mary Ellen often used her light complexion to pass as a white woman and was known to dress as a jockey, delivery person, or a cook in order to gain access to plantations.
Mary Ellen eventually took a four month voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco around April 7, 1852. During her voyage, she befriended a Scottish banker named Thomas Bell and went on to make millions speculating on banking and mining interests.
Mary Ellen used money from her business enterprises to sponsor runaway slaves and brought hundreds to San Francisco through her financial aid.
In 1858 Mary Ellen is also believed to have been a participant and a $30,000 financial sponsor of John Brown's mission to free slaves near Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. The effort failed and Brown was hanged after being captured. Mary Ellen narrowly escaped with her life and returned to San Francisco.
Once back in San Francisco, Mary Ellen bought and sold dozens of properties. She also built the "Geneva Cottage" at the edge of town where she hosted rather infamous bacchanalian parties attended by wealthy San Franciscan men and beautiful young women.
Mary Ellen would come to be known as "Black City Hall" by her Black peers as many of the city's most powerful people were not aware of her true identity.
Ms. Pleasant and Mr. Bell eventually built an opulent mansion on the corner of Octavia and Bush in Pacific Heights with a full city block of beautifully manicured landscaping and a row of six stately eucalyptus trees.
In 1868 Mary Ellen went on to win a lawsuit that fought for the right of Blacks to ride the street trolleys (Pleasant vs. North Beach & Mission Railway).
Ms. Pleasant amassed a $30 million fortune by expanding investments in silver mining and silver / gold exchange.
The story of Mary Ellen Pleasant still endures today. At the time, local media often cast her as a brothel owning, spell casting, "murderous Voodoo Queen". But despite the odds stacked against her, she managed to navigate her way to prosperity at a time when women and Blacks were not afforded any civil rights. Throughout her life, Mary Ellen Pleasant often put her personal safety at significant risk in pursuit of higher ideals she knew to be righteous, and she was willing to advance those ideals by any means necessary.
Her mansion and grounds on Octavia Street were demolished in 1928 but the perimeter of eucalyptus trees that Pleasant planted remain today.
Below are the words found on the memorial plaque.
PLACED BY THE SAN FRANCISCO
AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORICAL
1814 - 1904