Black History Spotlight: Mary Ellen Pleasant

Here at Breedlove Market, we gain inspiration from the rich history of successful black entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and creators that overcame unimaginable circumstances. Their ability to overcome systemic racism and constructed inequity guides a path forward for everyone today. Despite the work put in by these individuals, they frequently are not taught in traditional educational systems. Without teaching the success of our past, we can't expect success in the future. With that in mind, we want to highlight 28 historical figures, one for each day of Black History Month. We hope that their inspirational true-life stories will inspire you to also chase after your dreams.

Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant

Second, in our Black History Spotlight series, we're covering the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant. A black woman that gained a massive level of wealth in the early days of San Francisco, California. With Breedlove Market being based in San Francisco, we loved learning more about Mary Ellen and her story. We also found out that a park is named after her here in the city!

Mary Ellen Pleasant was an entrepreneur, real estate magnate, and abolitionist. While she managed to gain a significant level of wealth she also worked on the Underground Railroad and helped bring it to California. She used the courts to win several civil rights victories that expanded the rights of black people in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era.

When and where Pleasant was born is not exactly known, there are contradictory claims made about her earliest years. She is known to be born on August 19th but the exact year is unconfirmed. Pleasant's grave lists her birth year as 1817 while other sources claim her birth happened in 1814. The exact location of her birth is also disputed, with some claims stating she was born in Georgia but Pleasant claims in her autobiography that she was born in Philadelphia.

Knowledge of her parents also has contradictory claims but it is known that she was in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1827 as a bonded servant working for a Quaker storekeeper named "Grandma" Hussey. Pleasant managed to work her way out of bondage and eventually became to be considered a family member and a very close friend to Hussey's granddaughter, Phoebe Hussey Gardner. This Quaker family introduced Pleasant to several prominent abolitionists of the time since they were actively involved in the movement.

Due to her light skin and the help of the Hussey and Gardner families, she frequently passed as white. She married another black man that could also pass as white, James Smith, a flour contractor and plantation owner. Together they worked as "slave stealers" on the Underground Railroad until his death four years after their marriage.

Pleasant eventually was forced to relocate to New Orleans and then onto San Francisco due to increased attention from slavers. Arriving in San Francisco, Pleasant passed as white and took jobs running exclusively male eating establishments, starting with Case and Heiser. Via these eating establishments, she met most of the city founders and overheard financial gossip and deals.

She used the information overheard by listening in on powerful figures in the city and worked with a clerk of the Bank of California, Thomas Bell, to make money. She invested in a wide range of opportunities; real estate, silver and gold mines, various local businesses, and boarding houses. By 1875, Pleasant and Bell had grown an estimated 30 million dollar fortune, equal to roughly $864 million today. Using part of her wealth, she bought a mansion for herself and Bell and his family.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Mansion
Pleasant's Mansion on the corner of Octavia and Bush

Although Pleasant initially passed as white in San Francisco, she did not hide her true identity from other black people. She worked to find employment for individuals brought into the city from the Underground Railroad. During 1857 and 1859, Pleasant left San Francisco to help the famous abolitionist John Brown. She actively supported Brown's cause with both money and work. Allegedly, there was a note found in Brown's pocket after he was arrested for the Harpers Ferry Armory incident that was signed with "MEP" but misread as "WEP". The note read "The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help." This misreading of initials might be what prevented Pleasant from being caught. Later Pleasant reportedly said about the incident, "before I pass away, I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested."

Pleasant returned to San Francisco and began a series of lawsuits to fight racial discrimination on public transportation in the city. Her first lawsuit was against the Omnibus Railroad Company. The lawsuit was withdrawn after the company reversed positions and permitted black people to board their streetcars.

The second case, against North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, took two years and went to the California Supreme Court. The case ultimately outlawed segregation on public transportation.

Several court battles against Pleasant later damaged her reputation and drained her wealth. She died in poverty in San Francisco on January 4, 1904. She was buried in Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California.

After her death, she was recognized posthumously by the city of San Francisco. There are a few dedications to her role in the city that can be found to this day. Pleasant Street in the Nob Hill neighborhood is named after her. On the southwest corner of Octavia and Bush streets, where she built her mansion, is a Structure of Merit and is also the smallest park in San Francisco named the Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park.

If you'd like to learn more about Mary Ellen Pleasant, her life, and her legacy, we recommend the following sources that we used to create this post:

  • The New York Times

  • Hutchins Center for African & African American Research

  • SF Gate