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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound, and it is time they were given a voice. Mary Ellen Pleasant, we hear you.
The life of Mary Ellen Pleasant is an enigma, and the mystery surrounding her life will likely never be solved.
She lived in a time where secrets kept her alive and allowed her to prosper but also a time where journalists could print libelous stories largely unchecked. This both worked for and against her. The more colorful accounts of her life paint a sinister portrait of murder, underhanded dealings, and Voodoo, while the more probable accounts paint the portrait of an ambitious entrepreneur who used her money and influence to help those around her. However, as the overlaps between the varying tales are many, it is impossible to tell her story without including both.
Mary Ellen was born in the early 1800s to a white governor’s son and an enslaved Haitian Vodun Priestess. The Vodun religion was passed from her grandmother, to her mother, and then to Mary herself. At a young age, Mary witnessed her mother’s death at the hands of a plantation overseer, and some say she then proceeded to curse the overseer. Shortly thereafter, a sympathetic planter bought her freedom only to turn around and farm her out as an indentured servant.
That, however, is only Mary Ellen’s most popular origin story taking place anywhere from Virginia, to Georgia to Louisiana. Second to this is the story that she was born in Philadelphia to a free black woman and a visiting Hawaiian man – who of course had ties to Hawaiian royalty.
The true circumstances may never be known, however, as there is no record of Mary Ellen’s birth or parents. It should be noted, that while Mary Ellen’s fair complexion does point to one of her parents being Caucasian, that parent may have been her mother, not her father as is normally assumed.
White women giving birth to interracial babies was highly frowned upon. In Virginia, for example, the law stated that these mothers would be fined and/or made to work as an indentured servant for five years, and their child would be bound-out as an indentured servant, or apprentice if the child was male, until the age of 31. While there is no proof of this, it does fit her timeline.
The first time Mary Ellen appears in records of any kind is around the age of six in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she was working as an indentured servant in the general store of a Quaker family.
The fact that she was an indentured servant would suggest that if she had been born a slave, she had been freed at some point. However, she had no official documentation to prove her freedom, a fact that would cause her trouble later in life.
As her indenture wasn’t up until the 1840s, Mary Ellen was raised amongst the Quakers and readily adopted their beliefs of abolition and equality of the sexes. She also proved to be quite intelligent and learned all she could about running a business.
At the end of her indenture, she moved to Boston where the Quaker Friends helped her find a job. She wasn’t in Boston long before she began working for the Underground Railroad and eventually met and married a wealthy merchant and plantation owner named James W. Smith. He had inherited his plantation, near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, from his white father.
Like Mary Ellen, James was mulatto and very fair-skinned; thus, either could pass for white when needed. They used this to their advantage when they helped escaped slaves hop from one safe house to the next. Their track of the Underground Railroad ran from Virginia up to Nova Scotia.
At face value, this sounds like an ideal situation. However, James was very restrictive of Mary and often exhibited jealousy on the rare occasions when they were apart. So when he suddenly died, leaving Mary Ellen a wealthy woman, there was speculation that his death came at Mary’s own hand. It is unclear whether this speculation existed at the time or is the product of revisionist history told by enemies of Mary Ellen later in life.
After James’s death, Mary Ellen continued working for the Underground Railroad. She was renowned for her disregard of her own personal safety and even disguised herself as a jockey in order to sneak onto plantations unnoticed. She became one of the most wanted slave-rescuers and eventually was forced to flee to avoid capture. As she had no papers proving her freedom, her capture would have likely resulted in her being sold into slavery, if her black heritage were discovered.
Some accounts have her hiding in Nantucket for a time before fleeing west to San Francisco, but the more nefarious accounts have her stopping in New Orleans mid-trip. These accounts state that in New Orleans, Mary Ellen continued (started) her Voodoo training under the tutelage of Marie LaVeaux, aka Voodoo Queen Mam’zelle.
LaVeaux was not only known for her Voodoo, but also for the elaborate network of informants she had throughout New Orleans. These informants – often servants, laborers, and mistresses – reported back about job openings; housing; new business ventures; and, most importantly, secrets about the influential and well-to- do. LaVeaux used this information to help the disenfranchised who came to her for help and to curry favors in order to shape the city as she saw fit.
Mary Ellen was a fast study in both of the arts that Queen Mam’zelle could teach her.
When her activities in the North started to catch up to her, Mary Ellen boarded a ship to complete the last leg of her journey. It was on this ship that she met the man who became her second husband, JJ Pleasants. Some accounts say that they had a daughter named Lizzy, but largely the husband and daughter disappear from her tale once she arrives in California. It was also on this journey that she met a man named Thomas Bell – or she met Bell later in a San Francisco brothel, you choose.
Mary Ellen arrived in San Francisco in April 1852. As she was completely unknown, she passed herself off as a white woman and set up shop as an entrepreneur.
In the 1850s, San Francisco was a gold rush town, with the majority of the inhabitants comprised of single men – or at least men who were living singly. Mary Ellen saw a void and, using her late husband’s money, filled it by opening laundries, inns, dairies, and restaurants. Her establishments became wildly popular and the elite of San Francisco turned to her for room and board.
Working together with Bell, she also purchased shares in mines and the railroad and helped establish the Bank of California. The two of them secretly amassed a fortune that at one time was said to reach $30 million dollars. Mary Ellen made all of her investments through Bell, because she feared that if it was discovered that she was black, she would lose everything. To aid in this ruse, Mary Ellen dressed more like a servant than the wealthy woman that she was.
The relationship of Thomas and Mary Ellen runs the gamut from employer/servant to business partners to secret lovers. While Mary Ellen did eventually introduce Thomas to Teresa Percy, who would become his wife, she lived with the married couple for the entirety of their marriage.
Teresa was not the only woman that Mary Ellen helped into an advantageous marriage. Unbeknownst to the white population of San Francisco, Mary Ellen was known among the black community as a black woman. Like Marie LaVeaux, Mary Ellen worked to help the disenfranchised of the city, even going so far as to set up a Western portal for the Underground Railroad.
She helped place ex-slaves as servants around the city and reached out to the poorer white population of women to help them as well. As the majority of these women were whores or saloon girls, Mary Ellen helped to clean them up and introduced them to the well to-do men of San Francisco. She always proclaimed that there was no prostitution at her establishments, she instead provided introductions – leading to many of these women to becoming mistresses and/or wives of the elite. Through these seemingly charitable actions, Mary Ellen built her very own network of spies throughout San Francisco.
These women and black servants were her protégés and they filtered back information from the rich of the city, which Mary Ellen then used to help the poor of the city.
Mary Ellen became known as “Black City Hall,” because the black community knew that if they needed something, they could go to her and she would see that it was done. She used her money to help ex- slaves fight unfair laws, and in 1863, helped to repeal the law banning black testimony in California courts.
Before then, it was illegal for a black person to testify in court. Therefore, in cases involving a white person and a black person, the courts would only hear the white person’s side of the story unless the black person could find a white person to testify on their behalf. For obvious reasons, the white person always won these cases. Mary Ellen helped see to it that black people could have their say in the court of law.
It was also around this time, that Mary Ellen travelled back East to provide money and arrange an escape route for John Brown and his followers. When John Brown’s insurrection ended in tragedy, Mary Ellen high-tailed it back to San Francisco, as she was still very much a wanted woman under the Fugitive Slave Act.
After the Civil War, Mary Ellen openly declared her black heritage for the first time in the 1865 Census.
In 1866, she organized a sit-in after blacks were denied passage on streetcars. She sued the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company after she herself was denied passage and won $500 in damages. This ruling was brought before the California Supreme Court, where it was upheld in 1868 and later was used in 1983 as a precedent to prohibit the segregation of streetcars. This and other similar suits earned Mary Ellen her second nickname, “The Mother of Civil Rights in California.”
Mary Ellen also designed and oversaw the construction and furnishing of a 30 room mansion on Octavia Street, where she lived with Thomas and Teresa Bell. It was this living arrangement along with the fact that everything was in Bell’s name that fueled one of two stories – that Mary Ellen and Thomas were secret lovers or that Mary Ellen was merely a maid.
So when Thomas Bell died in 1892 from a fall from the second story of the mansion, Mary Ellen was left in a precarious situation. Thomas Bell failed to leave Mary Ellen anything in his will, and her former protégé, Teresa Bell turned against her. Despite the fact that the medical examiner ruled Thomas’ death as accidental, Teresa accused Mary Ellen of pushing him to his death.
Teresa went further and started a smear campaign, playing on Mary’s connection to Voodoo. Teresa claimed that Mary Ellen held Voodoo rituals in the mansion, earning it the name “House of Mystery,” and that she used Voodoo to protect and help the black community.
Local reporters who were eager to use Mary Ellen as an example of what happens when you allow women to gain power filled their papers with stories proclaiming everything from her being a useless failure to being a powerful witch. There were rumors that she carried a crystal ball with her wherever she went and that she used Voodoo to murder people standing in her way and to arrange marriages. They said that she swindled money from white families and that she stole babies and sold them on the black market. These rumors, especially the ones describing her intimate relationship with Voodoo, grew and spread like wildfire despite the fact that she had been active for years with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
As further insult, the papers began referring to her as “Mammy,” a pejorative name for black women. Mary Ellen hated this name and was said to have returned mail addressed to Mammy back to the sender unopened. This insult became so prolific that her two other nicknames faded into obscurity and she became known as Mammy Pleasant, with two of her biographers even using this name.
Because of the questionable relationship between Thomas and Mary Ellen, Teresa was eventually able to strip Mary Ellen of all of her money and kick her out of the mansion. Mary Ellen first moved into a small apartment in the African American section of the city, but she had over-extended the business dealings she still had control of and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1899.
The Sherwood family, a family that Mary Ellen had helped in her more prosperous years, took her in. Mary Ellen Pleasant never recovered from the smear campaign and she was penniless when she died on January 4, 1904 of heart failure. The Sherwood’s buried her in their family plot in the Tucolay Cemetery in Napa. At her request, her gravestone reads, “She Was a Friend of John Brown.”
Mary Ellen wrote an unpublished memoir and several diaries. However these were lost, leaving her narrative inexorably shifted by the smear campaign of Teresa Bell and the San Francisco newspapers.
To this day, she is known as the Voodoo Queen of San Francisco and is the main attraction of the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, a walking tour that begins across the street from the Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park. The park is located where her mansion used to stand until it burned down in 1925. It is the smallest park in the city and contains six Eucalyptus trees that Mary Ellen planted, and a plaque that proclaims her as a tireless worker for civil rights and a great entrepreneur.
She is also honored in the mural “San Francisco Renaissance,” located downtown in the Monadnock Building, where her likeness appears alongside that of Harvey Milk, Lotta Crabtree, Bernard Maybeck, and Isadora Duncan.
In recent years, much has been revealed of her more charitable and honorable side, and in retrospect it is easy to see how it was more palatable for a patriarchal and discriminatory society to believe the sinister tales of the Voodoo Queen, than those of a successful and charitable black woman. However, it will probably never be fully known which parts of her story are fact and which parts are fiction.
Mary Ellen Pleasant, the Mother of Civil Rights in California, this is in your honor.