Mary Ellen Pleasent was a legendary woman of influence and political power in the California Gold Rush era, standing up to authority and challenging society’s norms in a time it was unheard of, especially for a woman, let alone a biracial woman.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born a biracial slave on a Georgia plantation in 1814. After working for several different families she lived as an indentured servant to the Husseys. The Hussey family, Massachusetts Quakers and active abolitionists, adopted Mary at the end of her servitude and shared with her their beliefs about equality.
Pleasant married James Smith at the age of twenty-seven. Together they were deeply committed abolitionists, working to free slaves through the Underground Railroad. Pleasant inherited a large sum of money when Smith died four years after they married and continued the work they had begun together.
Mary frequently traveled to the South and crept onto plantations providing slaves information about safe escape routes. During these years Pleasant wrote for The Liberator, a weekly abolitionist newspaper published in Boston between 1831 and 1865. In 1848 she married John Pleasant; in the same year, slavers put a price on Mary’s head forcing the couple to flee to New Orleans.
In 1852 the couple moved to San Francisco where Mary passed as a white housekeeper to avoid being sent back to the South as a slave. Later, Mary managed several exclusive men’s establishments where she became acquainted with many of the city’s wealthy founders. Later in the deacde, Mary left San Francisco to help John Brown in his abolitionist efforts. When John was arrested after the Harpers Ferry Armory incident a note from Mary was found in his pocket.
She returned to San Francisco where she was convinced that financial success was essential to continue her abolitionist efforts. Mary with the help of Thomas Bell, a well-off clerk at the Bank of America, and the tips and gossip she overheard from wealthy men in the men’s establishments she ran, she invested her money. By 1875 they had amassed a whopping $30 million fortune between them ($55,500,000,000.00 GDP today). She became known as “Black City Hall” due to her financial assistance to other blacks in the city.
After the Civil War, Pleasant publicly changed her racial designation in the City Directory from “White” to “Black”, causing a little stir among some whites. She began a series of court battles to fight discriminatory laws. In 1868 Pleasant successfully sued the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company for denying her to ride the city streetcar because of her race, which outlawed segregation in the city’s public conveyances and set a precedent in the California Supreme Court that future civil rights cases employed.
You can learn about more women trailblazers of California at the Women’s Museum of California