The short answer is Lisa Bonet portrayed her on Drunk History in Season 1 Episode 5. The long answer is much more intriguing and inspiring. 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.
The obstacles this woman managed to overcome actually makes me feel silly for being disappointed and “overwhelmed” about the little inconveniences that arise in my personal life and business career. And being that it is Black History month, (please note that I fully believe that black history should be celebrated year round as part of American History as a whole, but that would be a whole other article), it stands to reason that I would share with the community someone who has inspired me to stand out and push without excuse to reach my goals. Someone I knew NOTHING about growing up, but who accomplished GREAT things in my own damn backyard, the San Francisco Bay Area.
So who was the woman referred to as the Mother of Civil Right in California. 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, 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.
An account by Nevada writer Sam Davis, one of Pleasant’s biographers, infers in her final memoir (Davis, 1901) that Mary was rescued by a Mr. Williams and sent to New Orleans to work as a linen worker at the Ursaline Convent and subsequently to work as a free servant for 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 store. At that time she could not read or write but states, “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.” While in Nantucket, Mary grew smart, witty, and adopted abolitionist beliefs and the principles of equality and enterprise.
Later in the 1840’s, when her service had ended, the twenty-something, young woman travelled to Boston where she became a tailor’s assistant, as well as a paid church soloist. It was in Boston that she met and married James W. Smith, a wealthy mulatto. According to a letter fragment by Mary, James (part Cuban, part white) was a contractor/ merchant who “passed” for white 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.
Her husband 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. When James died suddenly (sometime between 1844 and 1848) he 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.
Finally, in 1851, with slavers hot on her trail, she fled West with her second husband, John James Pleasance (“J.J. Pleasants” when Anglicized). Mary arrived in 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, which was not a safe environment for any woman.
However Mary met 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. In 1858 Mary decided to return East –not to live, but to help abolitionist John Brown. In Canada, she and JJ bought land on Campbell St. to help house the slaves that Brown 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 a militia made up of runaway slaves throughtout 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 risky plan, but 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.
However, Brown acted too soon and was hanged, and Mary narrowly escaped with her life. On her return, 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.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Mrs. Pleasant brought several civil rights lawsuits in California, most of which she won. 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. Mary Ellen Pleasant died on Jan. 4, 1904.
Tezra Rogers is a Real Estate Broker/Loan Officer (CA DRE #01744515/NMLS #01466173) with 17 years experience and at last count, 816 transactions under her belt. Her clients become family, and in this house there is always room for more. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the corporate office in Suisun City, CA at 707.759.4251. Follow her on IG @pacbaybroker.