Born on August 19, 1812, Mary Ellen Pleasant entrepreneur, financier, real estate magnate was one of the most devoted abolitionist of her time.
Born enslaved to a Voodoo priestess (unknown) and John Hampden Pleasants, the youngest son of Governor of Virginia James Pleasants Mart Ellen was bonded servant to a Quaker storekeeper, "Grandma" Hussey she worked her way out of bondage and became a family member and lifelong friend to Hussey's granddaughter, Phoebe Hussey Gardner. The Hussey’s were deeply involved in the abolitionist movement and Pleasant met many prominent abolitionists and quickly recognized her fate was tied to that struggle.
When Pleasant became an adult she married John James ("J.J.") Pleasant and the two of them would often passed for White people in order to assist escaped enslaved Africans through the Underground Railroad. Mary Ellen never concealed her nationality from other Blacks, and was adept at finding jobs for those brought through her Underground Railroad activities. Some of the people she helped became important Black leaders and abolitionist as well.
Mary Ellen’s abolitionist devotions carried her across the United States to San Francisco, California and back to West Virginia, to help John Brown in 1857 to 1859. She actively supported his cause with money and work and was also arrested during John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Armory revolt. When her captors read a note hidden in an inside pocket with her initials “MEP” it was misinterpreted. Because of her complexion along with a commanding performance, she was never caught.
Mary Ellen then returned to San Francisco to continue her work as an abolitionist where she was known as the "Black City Hall”. After the Civil War, Pleasant publicly changed her racial designation in the City Directory from "White" to "Black", causing a stir among astonished and appalled whites and media during that time. Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur "Mammy Pleasant”, when describing her. None of this deterred her from fighting for the human rights of enslaved Africans. Subsequently, she began a series of court battles to fight laws prohibiting blacks from riding trolleys and other such abuses.
After amassing a considerable amount of wealth, Mary Ellen Pleasant died on January 12, 1904 relatively penniless, devoting practically all of her accumulated wealth towards the liberation of her people. She was buried in the Sherwood family plot in Tulocay Cemetery, Napa, California. Her gravesite is marked with a metal sculpture that was dedicated on June 11, 2011.
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