originally published February 20, 2014
History – even that special brand of history that today seems unflinchingly common-sense and righteous – is more deeply mired with confused and distorted perspective than a grease-trap full of one-eyed ants. We reflect on our civil rights champions with quiet applause and a brow-full of scorn for “those other assholes”: the white oppressors, the Nazi scum, the patriarchal dicks, the anti-lefty scissor-making industry, and so on.
But while Dr. King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks were at the forefront of a dramatic national movement, a moment should be spared for those who came earlier. Those who predated a movement or created one on their own.
When Mary Ellen Pleasant pushed for civil rights reforms – even before the country’s highest office had determined that black people amounted to more than a commodity – she was hailed as a hero. Then, naturally, she was skewered, squeezed and crucified. It ended well for Mary, but only if you consider ‘ending well’ to mean she was eventually honored for what she did, more than a century after her death.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born with a first name only, the illegitimate daughter of John H. Pleasants (the son of the Georgia governor) and a black voodoo priestess. Mary was known for dispersing a heap of contradictory information about her past, so it’s hard to say for certain if she worked as a child in a New Orleans convent or was freed from slavery by a sympathetic planter. We do know it was the early 1800’s and Mary had enough African-American blood in her veins to have knitted her a few rifts with the society around her.
We also know Mary ended up an indentured servant for a lady named Grandma Hussey in Nantucket, Massachusetts. The Hussey family was a major force in the abolitionist movement, and given that Mary had watched her mother die at the hands of a sadistic slave owner, there was no question she’d be on board with the cause. She embraced her freedom as an adult, and married a man who was also of mixed race, a guy named James W. Smith.
Both James and Mary could pass for white if they needed to, which worked to their advantage as they became integral contributors to the Underground Railroad, scooting slaves from the backwards south to the respite of Canada or Mexico. When James died in the mid-1840s, he left Mary a lot of money and an elaborate slave-saving infrastructure to run. Mary was up to the task; she would sneak onto plantations disguised as a jockey and disappear with as many slaves in tow as she could manage. By 1851, she was a hunted woman, a fugitive from a twisted authority who deemed her audacity at ascribing humanity to black men and women to be appalling.
It was time to head out west.
This was around the time Mary linked lives with her second husband, J.J. Pleasants. The last name was pure coincidence; J.J. had no familial ties with the Georgia family that made up half of Mary’s DNA.
J.J. headed west to San Francisco to scout out a new place for the family to plant roots. At the time, the city was frothing over its bay-front rim with gold-hungry prospectors and lecherous outlaws. Men outnumbered women six to one, and it’s said that every six days another five murders would get tacked onto the city’s death toll. For Mary, it was perfect.
Mary Ellen Smith walked the streets of San Francisco by day, a wife, white businesswoman and boarding house owner. Mary Ellen Pleasant was known to the local black community as a warrior. Having skin that was just the right tint to pass for both was handy, particularly since the Fugitive Slave Act in California meant that Mary was still considered a wanted woman for her crimes out east.
No longer in a position to ferry slaves from their gruesome fate to greener pastures, Mary became the embodiment of those green pastures in San Francisco. She used her influence to find jobs and opportunities for black residents, and became known as the ‘Black City Hall’. As for Mary’s own pocketbook, her investments and businesses made her the wealthiest black woman in the west, possibly in all of America, with a fortune estimated at about $30 million. She not only had connections and ideas – Mary had influence.
One day in 1866, Mary and two others were ejected from a streetcar. Mary’s ensuing lawsuit effectively desegregated the city’s public transit system. Nearly a century later there were still laws governing where black people could sit on a bus in a sizable chunk of the country; thanks to Mary, San Francisco was way ahead of the curve.
Mary headed back out east to help abolitionist John Brown take on slavery with an armed insurrection. Once the Civil War had ended, Mary felt confident taking on the full-time public identity of a black woman in San Francisco. She had money, power, a beautiful home, and now her people were starting to get a smidgen of the rights they deserved around the country. Unfortunately, outside the walls of Mary’s beautiful mansion, forces within the city were quietly turning against her.
If there exists a single force that can overpower a lifetime of humanitarianism, it’s bad press. After Mary’s husband J.J. passed away from diabetes in 1877, the press began to turn on her. She had become close with a bank clerk named Thomas Bell, and together they had made a number of solid investments. But when Bell died, his wife sued Mary, and the papers wasted no time offering the story up in scandalous hors d’oeuvres of lies and speculation. She was called a voodoo priestess, a baby stealer, a schemer, and even a baby eater. They gave her the nickname ‘Mammy’ and spoiled her reputation.
Mary Ellen Pleasant had lost her sway in San Francisco. She died in poverty in 1904 and all that remained of her legacy was drowned in the greasy sludge that had splattered the newspapers over the past twenty or so years of her life. It wasn’t until author and researcher Susheel Bibbs came across Mary’s story in 1998 that the world began to notice what she had done. Mary’s landmark 1866 case against the streetcar company had established a precedent that was used in a housing desegregation case by the California Supreme Court as recently as 1983. Mary had set the tone for the latter part of the 20th century before that century had even begun.
By 2005 her city had come to recognize what she had done, marking a group of eucalyptus trees she had planted as an historic landmark, and declaring a day in her honor. The Mother of Civil Rights finally got her due.