Pleasant, Mary Ellen (c. 1814–1904)

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Pleasant, Mary Ellen (c. 1814–1904)

African-American civil-rights activist and entrepreneur. Name variations: Mammy Pleasant; some sources indicate surname as Pleasants or Plaissance. Born on August 19, 1814 (according to her own account), in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on January 11, 1904, in San Francisco, California; married Alexander Smith (a Cuban tobacco planter and abolitionist, died 1848); married John Pleasant (or Pleasants), around 1848 (separated).

Was involved in civil-rights activities; moved to California (1849), where she owned a boarding house and engaged in legal and illegal business activities (1850s on); was a philanthropist who boasted that she financed John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, an account that is unproven.

Historical accounts and the memoirs of Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant paint very conflicting portraits of her early years, while her later years are cloaked in scandalous reports and mystery. Her own most consistent version was that she was born a free person in Philadelphia to a Louisiana-born black mother and Louis Alexander Williams, a Kanaka, or native of Hawaii. Some biographers, however, claim she was born into slavery in Virginia, the child of a black or mulatto slave and a white plantation owner. Still other reports indicate that she was born into slavery in Augusta, Georgia. According to this last account, a visitor to the plantation, impressed with her intelligence, bought her freedom for $600 and sent her to work for a friend, who eventually sent her to work at a store in Nantucket, Massachusetts.

When she ended her work on the island of Nantucket, the family who owned the store helped Pleasant become established in Boston. It was there that she met and married her first husband, Cuban planter and abolitionist Alexander Smith. He died in 1848 and left her with $45,000, a substantial legacy, to be used to support abolitionist causes. Soon after, she married John Pleasant (or Pleasants), who had been an overseer on the Smith plantation. She reportedly was involved in the Underground Railroad, and was so successful in assisting escaping slaves that she had "a price on her head in the South."

Accounts relate that the Pleasants went to California in 1849, during the gold rush, but her husband apparently did not figure very significantly in her life after the journey. Pleasant moved to San Francisco and put her business acumen and entrepreneurial skills, not to mention her reputation as a noteworthy cook, to work. There was much wealth circulating in the heady days of the gold rush, but few luxuries in the area to spend it on. Miners and merchants were clamoring for services, and Pleasant, according to San Francisco newspapers, rejected many offers of employment as a cook from people with means. (One of these included a bid to pay her $500 a month.) Instead, with her name now well known, she opened a boarding house that provided lodging and food, both of which were scarce. Many of Pleasant's boarders rose to prominence in the community and state, and she kept her ties with them. She expanded her business dealings by lending money to businessmen and miners at an interest rate of 10%, while also investing wisely on the advice of her influential boarders and other associates. During this time she gained a reputation as "The Fabulous Negro Madam," acting as a procurer for her male associates. Newspaper reports say she guarded the identities of her clients with absolute devotion, which made her quite popular among those clients. A photograph of Pleasant from around this time reveals a strikingly attractive face with determined features.

Concerned about racial equality, she became increasingly involved in helping others and in civil-rights activities during the 1850s and 1860s. In addition to providing financial assistance for these causes, she sought out and rescued slaves being held illegally in the California countryside. (California had entered the Union as a free state under the Compromise of 1850, but the legal status of slaves brought there by their owners from slave states was vague.) Pleasant also found jobs in wealthy households for runaway slaves and developed an information network. One of the most widely circulated, albeit unsubstantiated, reports on Pleasant concerns her role in abolitionist John Brown's raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859. She reportedly sailed to the East in 1858 and in Canada gave Brown $30,000 to finance his battle against slavery. Among Brown's belongings when he was captured was a note that read: "The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money to help. (signed) W.E.P." Supporters of this theory suggest that the "M" in Pleasant's initials may have been misread as a "W." Skeptics of her account of the Brown connection, however, say that Brown had already left Canada by the time of her visit there, and that she produced no evidence to prove she had given him any money.

Pleasant returned to San Francisco around 1859 and continued both her business activities and her activism. In 1863, she was integral in winning African-Americans the right to testify in court in California (previously, neither African-Americans nor Native Americans were allowed to speak in court in civil or criminal cases, even ones in which they were directly involved). She also fought to win the right of African-Americans to use San Francisco's streetcars. In 1868, she brought two railroads to court and successfully sued them for refusing her passage. Testimony in Pleasants v. North Beach and Mission Railroad Company, appellant, indicated that a conductor had told her: "We don't take colored people in the cars." The lower court's ruling for Pleasant, awarding her damages of $500, was appealed to the California Supreme Court, where it was upheld. (Legislation forbidding discrimination by race in matters of public accommodations, such as streetcars, would not be passed in California until 1893.)

Pleasant operated a house of ill repute called Geneva's Cottage for a number of years beginning in 1869, and some time later became a housekeeper for wealthy San Francisco banker Thomas Bell and his wife Teresa Bell (who may have been an erstwhile employee of Pleasant's). The Bell mansion promptly gained the nickname of "The House of Mystery" for the strange goings-on there, many of which remain murky but evidently provided Pleasant with illicit access to much of the Bell fortune. This association also sparked a major scandal involving one of Bell's business competitors, William

Sharon, a U.S. senator from Nevada who was also a former resident of Pleasant's boarding house. Pleasant apparently paid several thousand dollars to a woman named Sarah Hill to claim she was Sharon's wife and to sue him for a divorce and a property settlement. Hill was successful at the state court level, but that court's decision was later overturned and the marriage contract that she had produced as evidence declared a forgery. While this scam apparently cost Pleasant money (instead of gaining her a share of Sharon's property settlement, as she no doubt intended), she was reported to have wangled a large chunk of Thomas Bell's estate after he died in an unexplained plunge from an upper window of his home.

By mid-1899, however, Pleasant filed for bankruptcy, and requested food and other necessities from acquaintances. (It is thought, nonetheless, that she retained a considerable amount of money even at that time.) She lived her last few months in the San Francisco home of a family named Sherwood who had befriended her, dying on January 11, 1904, and was buried in their burial plot in Napa, California.


Griffin, Lynne, and Kelly McCann. The Book of Women: 300 Notable Women History Passed By. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1992.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania